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The Balancing Act of Marrying Together Two Cultures

When: 31st July 2017

Where: VA

A few months back I read a dissertation on the acculturation process of immigrant Asian Indians in the United States. This one I read was approved in the May of 2008 and was authored by Dr. Nirisha Garimella. When I was looking up dissertation and thesis documents submitted by Indians at TWU, this one particularly drew my attention for two reasons: one, Garimella is a very popular Telugu surname and two, it used a qualitative methodology for studying the phenomenon of how Asian Indians settle into United States. While I cannot share the detailed contents of the dissertation here, to simply explain what the study highlighted, one can say it narrated the stories of 15 immigrants settled in the US from a kal, aaj aur kal (yesterday, today and tomorow in Hindi) perspective.

"Oh my god! I cannot believe it has been so many years since I saw you!"

Fast forward to last week when I visited my cousin's family. As I was about to walk into the house, the main door sprang open and my cousin's wife like literally crushed me with her hug. Not that it surprised me! 3 full days at a conference, lot of listening and lot of talking later, a 11 PM arrival after two hours of train journey was making me feel weary until she crushed me :) Such energy and excitement in receiving someone into their home at 11 PM was so refreshing to experience. What happens after I receive such warm welcomes is a story for another time. For the next three hours I was surrounded by a family (including a 15 year old and a 10 year old) that made me laugh to the point of having tears in my eyes.

"It is very hard to describe the early years! I would wonder what the hell is happening to my body, why don't I feel healthy?"

As we continued to talk about the six years that happened between my last visit and the current one, at one point, I saw her eyes well up. This was followed by a lot of head nodding. We spoke on so many things ranging from  parenting to politics. A lot of the talk was surrounded around how healthy vegetarian food was an impossible thing to have around when she moved to the States. All through these hours of conversations I shared with her, I couldn't stop thinking about this dissertation I read. As she spoke about her own life, she would start with the history of her own life, talk about what is currently happening and then present such a positive and hopeful image of the future.

As I currently split my time between understanding immigrant perspectives, their challenges and physical activity, I am often drawn towards these conversations that happen with Indian women who move to the States at a very young age and are then trying to create a home here for their own families.

"No matter what my day has in store for me, I need to work out early in the morning. Then I can handle anything."

I woke up this morning very early and through my foggy eyes, I saw her dressed up in her work out clothes, walking over to my bed and saying "I will see you exactly in 45 minutes Padmini. I need to go work out! Sleep in if you don't feel like going. We shall figure it out!" And she is gone! I was like "Whoaa! What just happened?" These days I am not a very morning person and seeing her be so active I was like, "What the hell! I need to get out of my bed right now!" And I was up and ready in 45 minutes. Now I can only imagine what that image of her can do to the young kids growing up in her home.

"Watching what I eat is so important for me because I know it powers every living second of my day. And I am constantly trying to make the meals at home interesting. That way I get the kids to spend more time with us too " *says this while smiling at me*

You see her order food at a restaurant and she is constantly talking to both her daughters about the content of the foods. And then she leaves them alone to make the choice for themselves. Her daughter wants to snack and she is immediate to bring her a bowl of apple slices. She does all this so naturally that it looks really easy. But all through our conversations, it was clear that all these awesome parenting skills came to her through many trials and tribulations she has lived through. This beautiful parenting and compassion that is evident in her personality came after years of lived experiences in a country far away from her parents and her own land (just like it has come to many other immigrant women too!). She is often very quick to say,

"We learnt from each other Padmini. We were both very young. We moved here with no clue of what the future held for us. But once we got here, we continued to learn and evolve."

Why it is important for me to write about her?

In today's times, I rarely see immigrant women (especially Indian women) who  are physically fit and can be active all through the day. I am guilty of it myself (I am not yet an immigrant. NIDIA you see). I let stress get to me so badly sometimes that it takes me about a week's time to recover. I have often said this to my American friends here.

Self-care is a very absent or unknown concept in the lives of millions of Indian women.

And the response was always agreement with an amendment.

"Women in general happen to neglect or not make time for self care. So the additional variable of immigration makes it more complex for y'all!"

She is an excellent example of an Indian immigrant in this country, who has learnt to bring together the best of two very different cultures that she got tossed into. If I had to summarise what I learnt from my conversations with her, I would say:

  • It is important for us to wear a smile on our face and embrace life as bravely as we can. No matter which direction life throws you in.
  • It is perfectly okay to slow down, take a step back and to ask for help.
  • It is important to have a fitness routine every day in the morning.

Portrait of Shanti Kondapi and Padmini Chennapragada sitting on a cement bench. Shanti is wearing a beautiful maroon long skirt teamed with a white sleeveless top and Padmini is wearing navy blue lenin shirt teamed with a denim skirt. The background has a white wooden fences and on either sides of the bench are white flowered plants looking pretty in the beautiful Carrytown weather.

Meet Shanti Kondapi, an unsung victor of the immigrant battles that many Indians try to survive, mother of two young American girls who can out a song in your heart every time you meet them. I was on my way to the airport when I heard the song "Badal pe paon hai!" from Chak De! India when I had the idea of wanting to write about her. Her life story is empowering for me to learn from because through her balancing act of marrying two cultures together, she powers three other humans around her. Also she is not related to me. Growing up watching my sister and mother closely, I always lived in this bubble that no one else is as capable as them to raise children or to be managing a family. But as I travel and meet more people, their life stories are constantly educating me on how so many women around me are leading amazingly positive lives.

I am sure Shanti's story is not alone. There are millions of women like her around the world. But these stories need to be told repeatedly. These voices need to be heard. They need to be talked about at our dinner tables. In today's times, it is more important than ever before to talk about how immigrants are bringing in great value to the citizenship of these United States.

Vadina (sister-in-law in Telugu), until we meet again, lots of love and hugs! I will miss you!

Annayya (brother in Telugu), I won't miss you, and no thanks for being so nice 🙂 I can try being not so nice too, if you visit me in Dallas.

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NIDIA 23: Vegetarianism at Texas Woman’s: Best Leadership Lesson

When: Sometime back 🙂

Where: Denton, Texas

Being a vegetarian in Denton, Texas is not a hard job. However, when I first came to TWU in 2012, being a vegetarian while eating in the on-campus dining hall was hard. Not because there were no options. It was because veggie burgers were grilled on the same grill as hamburgers, and other vegetarian options included steamed or raw vegetables. Raised in a home where we were taught never ever to complain about the quality of food that we were blessed with for each meal, I wasn’t particularly disappointed. But then it begins to hurt 🙂 Having to eat steamed vegetables (I am a fan of both Popeye and Spinach so stop smiling.Its just that steamed veggies can begin to kill your spirits after a point). Then started my efforts to find places that made good vegetarian food on order in Denton (Will share a list sometime).

Then 2014 happens to us at TXWomans. I swear my life changed

For anyone who knows me, cooking vegetarian meals, bringing the reference of food into every discussion about high-quality human life, and talking non-stop about the pride I have for being a good cook are no new topics. So in the second half of 2014 when a new change made its way to our campus in Denton, I knew I had to hang on for a little bit longer before calling quits to my disappointment in other quarters of campus life.

Soon there was an option for us students to write to the University’s Chancellor. And the me that you know *evil grinning*, dusted off my key board and wrote to the Chancellor’s website about multiple things. This was primarily because, at the same time I was also getting trained in the nuances of educational leadership. And here it was. Changes in leadership, new evaluation and communication systems in place. I was the most excited person on the campus I guess. Late last month, I went into my writing logs and noticed that I had written to the University’s Chancellor (through her website) on about four topics.

Three of those issues are FIXED

While I can’t elaborate on two of them, I can tell you what one was.

Last month when we had a fair on campus, I walked to TWU’s Dining Services table and started praising them for providing more and more vegan options and for upgrading so many of their services. The Food Services Director calmly walks over with his hands folded and says with a smile,

You see that tall tower over there? Someone in one of those top floors, its all them! They care! Thank them.

One of the early topics I studied in my educational leadership classes was communication of educational leaders and how to hear everyone’s voices out to become an authentic educational leader. You see Learn by Doing  as a commonly used phrase on campus at TWU. Here I have learnt by watching how it is done.

How leadership roles can be class acts!

How bringing in change is hard but not impossible!

From where I come, feeding someone a hearty meal, not expecting anything back in return, wishing that they do well in their lives is life mantra that is practiced and preached as much as possible.

Since the early times when I realised that someone was reading my suggestions, I have actively encouraged every ‘complaining’ student on campus I came across to write their concerns/suggestions to the Chancellor’s website. Quite a few of them didn’t know of it and would say later, “Wow! it works! I tried..”

Last month, a friend of mine was being awarded for her research work and she was kind enough to invite me to the luncheon. I was sitting at our table when the Chancellor walked in and I greeted her. As obvious it is that it was a huge event and she had to quickly respond and moved onto greet the dignitaries at the event. A few moments later I hear a familiar voice tapping me on shoulder and saying something like, “Hi Sri, I had to go say hello to someone….”

I turn back to see the Chancellor. I am immediately trying to get up from my chair when she puts her hands on my shoulders and forces me back to my seat and says, “No, No, don’t get up. How was your trip to home? I saw the beautiful photo you posted this morning, it made me so happy!”

While I am responding to her plainly, inside my heart was screaming.

“Are you kidding me! You remember I went home and came back in one piece? Then you remember both me and my professor and you feel happy that we are happy in that picture? You know my name and you know I was travelling to go home…my thoughts were racing endlessly”

As funny as it may sound, that conversation just blew my brains. Not that I didn’t know from before how authentic she is, but because it happened to me.

When kindness is showered on you generously,

When people care in real,

When someone as important as her remembers you and inquires about you and your family,

It leaves an overwhelmingly positive impression on your mind

Collage of three images. Left portrait of Sri Chennapragada and Dr. Carine Feyten. Right portrain of Dr. Feyten's address at the awards luncheon. Right hand bottom corner image is of a vegan meal from TWU's Dining Services

Meet Dr. Carine Feyten, President and Chancellor of Texas Woman’s University.

There are some that teach you in school but then there are others that lead you.

And I am an extremely Proud Pioneer to be lead by such an exemplary educational leader who believes in bringing a breath of fresh air to the campus climate here at TWU. And she does it with a smile on her face always.

Today, at TWU, someone like me with restricted food needs,

  • Can eat 3 different types of entrees
  • Endless options for fresh healthy salads
  • At least two yoghurts and 4 options of fresh fruit
  • 2 Desserts
  • 2 options of fruits/herb induced waters
  • Locally sourced milk
  • Along with veggie burgers being grilled in ovens all by themselves without any mix up with meat

And it is because Dr. Feyten heard the needs of many students like me who needed healthier food options on campus and she worked hard to make it happen for us. How will this help her directly? May be will keep a foodie like me happy who will always be beaming her teeth out just like how happy I look in this photo.

Dr. Feyten, I love you. Thank you for everything you have been doing for us all. And most importantly because you brought good food on campus *smiling with all my teeth showing*

Note: Any of you (I know who all it will be) commenting on my oiled hair look here is going to adi vaangify from me 🙂 I am trying to handle a terrible situation with my hair and my mom’s organic home remedies keep it oily somedays. And that good day was a bad hair day. While I cringe every time I see the oily hair, Dr. Feyten’s smile fills my heart with joy every time I see it. This proximity to educational leaders and this positivity is ‘new’ for me and I am sure most of you all know why I love this school so much. It just feels like I paid a price in advance for all this happiness.

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NIDIA 22: Tears, Therapy and Truth

Over the years, I have faced a lot of backlash for my thoughts and ideas that take me forward in life. From the day I could see how surgeons can revive a dying patient on an operating table to the day I saw a child with severe spastic cerebral palsy take ten steps during gait training without a break: one thing became clear to me. Individuals with disabilities and challenges that concern their everyday health have always been redefining how we relatively look at success and failure. Across all domains. They have forever now been challenging societal stereotypes about succeeding in a task or failing to succeed in a task. History is the witness to who were observing, listening or cheering.
 
Watching beautiful stories, countless of them from the sidelines, sometimes being a minute part of these efforts, it is a job satisfaction that can never be described in words.
 
My last physical therapy case as a physiotherapist was a young stroke victim (38 years old) with right side hemiplegia. He was originally from Rayalaseema. He was also undergoing other treatments during the same time. I particularly state this here because I want many of my non-rehabilitation profession friends and family to know a fact.
Recovering from an illness, rehabilitation after accidents, re-training to handle a sudden disability: all these processes are complex and need so much help. It is never just one service provider.
One of the very common things you will see happen in countries like India is, rehabilitation services that families strive to provide for their loved ones often times include a spiritual component. And he was a believer in the help his parents were bringing to him from a spiritual perspective. And I think that is why working with him has left an indelible impression of my mind. How he was motivated to heal and was willing to stay involved. Often times it is so much dependent on the individual.
 
In about 10 days I think:
  • He progressed from not being able to hold the pen to being able to hold the pen.
  • From not remembering me to remembering every morning that I was his PT and that my name started with either P or B (even though he couldn’t yet write them down).
  • From needing full support to take a few independent steps to being able to stand up from a chair independently.
  • From tearing up every time I helped him hold a spoon to laughing out loud every time he dropped it down and I had to collect the glass beads back.
For someone like me who was trying very hard to heal from a terrible time in that college, working with him was the best thing to have happened to me then. I will never say he inspired me. I hate to apply that term to his situation or any other rehabilitation scenarios. His effort and the pain he battled everyday to make it through each session, they are indescribable. Nothing is inspiring when you see a person struggling every breath to take a step or to lift a small wooden block. For people who are really involved in their work as rehabilitation specialists, those are what I call the gut punch moments. The real moments when you are constantly reminded to not do a lousy job (because you had an annoying drive to work and for reasons like that) because someone’s ability to eat independently or self-care without dependence in future is solely relying on the chance that your care and training will be helpful to them.
 
Today I went through one of those evenings where you sit in open cold and you cry your heart out! You cry because that is the best thing you can do for yourself and that is only thing in your control. 15 minutes into the crying, face in my hands, palms wet with tears, I see his face when we last time said bye byes. I remember so well. He held my hands in both his hands and kept patting them while talking. He said to me, “You don’t know how much these few days will always mean for me in my life. You have the ability to be patient with people like me. You should continue to do the good work that you have learnt after all these years in college. Your problems will vanish someday. So choosing to leave the profession because of what people did to you because of politics is a wrong decision. And anytime you want to give up, remember my face and tell yourself that he will not appreciate it”
 
Why I wrote this today:
Social media was thrust upon our lives with no advance notice. It has now become a big part of our lives. For someone like me, I very carefully choose what I post on my social media (primarily because I don’t want to pain people with the challenges I have to face like everyone else). There have been several days like this in my #GradLife so far. When I have felt completely alone as the only Indian women ever to be here doing what I have done so far. So don’t ever assume that what I am trying to learn here has been easy so far. It is not as rosy as it looks on the social media. In extreme situations when possibilities for success look bleak, I remember his therapy days and ask myself.
Is it harder than the therapy days he persisted through for progress?
The obvious answer I hear my mind give me is NO.
 
The amount of kicking and screaming I have done to life every time I faced a challenge will blow everyone’s minds. Over the years the way I have been defining success and failure in my life have changed. The seeds for those thoughts though, were sowed during those therapy days when I worked with that young man from Rayalaseema.
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My Life: Religion in Reality

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Two days back, I was standing in the Portland Art Museum staring at a beautiful Quran which had illustrations made of gold and lapis lazuli. The beauty of the illustration caught my attention as I was walking away from a Native American Fashion exhibit. In a few seconds my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had with a best friend in college (I think it was in 2009). As the holy month of Ramadan begins, I want to share a part of that conversation here. Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, my best friend then told me something that helped her tide past tough times in her life. I do not know how accurate my understanding about this topic is. May be someone who is an expert on these topics can correct me if I am saying something wrong here. But why is it important for me to share this?

It was one of those rare occasions when someone from a different belief system helped me retain faith in God while not talking in the same language of faith I grew up around.

We were sitting in our college’s parking lot in the back of my dad’s car (Strangely, I have a photograph of both of us from that day which another friend clicked on my phone!!). By then I had cried for about 20 minutes when my friend said to me,
“Arre sun, tereko mein ek baath bolthi Padmini. Mereko nai maloom ki tereko yeh sab mein yakeen hai ki nai. Lekin mereko bolne ka mann karra, so bolri. Humaare mazhab mein ek baath sikaathe humko. Quran mein bhi likha hai. Jisne bhi apni zubaan se kabhi bhi ek bhi galat baath na kahi ho, woh zubaan se nikli dua hamesha Allah tak paunchthi hai. Aur ek aisa bhi hai ki ek bhi insaan nahi hoga jisne kabhi apni zubaan se galath baathein na ki ho. Lekin jo bhi galtiyaan hum karthein hai, woh sab hamaarein hi hai. Isliye, jab kisee aur keliye tu dua karegi, woh dua Allah manzoor karega kyun ki, doosre insaan ke hisaab mein tho tere zubaan ki galtiyaan maaf hai.”
[Listen, I will tell you one thing Padmini. I don’t know if you believe in all these things I am telling you. But I feel like telling you. So here it is. We are taught something in our religion. It is written in the Holy Quran also. A mouth(zubaan) that has never uttered a sinful word, a prayer spoken from that mouth always reaches Allah. And there is also this saying that there won’t be a single human who has not sinned ever by speaking bad words. However, a sinful word spoken from one’s mouth is their own and a prayer from that person for another human will always be a clean prayer. So praying for someone else will be the best way to make an honest prayer that the Allah will bless.]
I don’t know how well I have written her words in English. But these words have been a guide for me since then. Since that day, I always found solace in praying for others more than myself (That doesn’t mean I am not kicking screaming and blowing my nose away on hurtful things. I do the whole drama also :). Well, I do pray for myself to ask for all the materialistic things that I want and to occasionally give Him my thanks for gifting me a wonderful life. Jokes apart, that conversation helped me come over a huge set back in 2009 and since then, I have always bounced back from so many situations that would have definetely broken my spirit if it was not for all the spiritual help I had around me. And the beauty of the life I experienced so far is that when I went through a time of questioning the belief system I grew up around, my best friends who were Muslim, Catholic and Sikhs helped me find my way back to believe in a power that was beyond the understanding of my small brain.
When I stared at the beautiful lapis lazuli and gold illustrated Quran pages that day, her words rang in my ears. The words that she said to me, how I constantly use them in my life to tide past tough times made my eyes well up. She was a great friend. She was always there for others despite having a tough life herself . I learnt to cook Palak curry from her (see there comes my food reference!), learnt a great deal about Islam from her(She taught me to wear a hijab which I still use today in the hot Texas sun. It is amazing how airy it is and how you can hide your face completely! :)), realized the value of having a cursive handwriting from her (she used to say, kaiku kharaab karri tera handwriting aisa waisa likkhe? howli hai tu!!), and learnt from her that staying strong in the face of adversity was a hidden untapped talent that women are naturally gifted with. We also often spoke comparing the good things and the not so good things we experienced for practicing our own religions (If I publish all that here, I will be removed from all the countries I ever lived in hahaha). We talked a great deal about the foods we cooked. Our discussions were so animated that, one night when we were both posted for a night duty, I went to sleep listening to her describing how they cooked chicken biryani and trust me, to this day, I can narrate to you all the steps that are followed in cooking chicken for biryani 🙂 It is hilarious when I look back at all those memories. I even did a fashion photo shoot for her in a burqa. I can never publish the photographs unless she would ask me to. I will wait for that day.
I don’t know where she is today. She just disappeared from all contact points after college. May be she wanted no part of that life we all struggled to make it through. This Ramadaan, seeing that Quran brought back all these memories to me. Ismat, where ever you are, I pray and wish all the best for your life. I never asked her if I could share her photo publicly. But today I want to. If I receive an objection or a note from her or her family, I will remove the image from here. But for now, I want the world to see the image of one of the best humans I knew growing up in my city, Hyderabad. She reminded me to keep faith in my Hindu gods and she was a staunch Muslim.
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NIDIA 20: Distant Dreams

He complimented me about living in a nice part of the metroplex and said I made a good choice to go to school in Denton. 

SB: “I came to the US eleven years ago. Went to school here and graduated from high school. Are you from India miss?”

I uttered a how did you recognise me to be from India while laughing my heart out [It is not hard for people. I wear a bottu always]

He smiled and asked me “Don’t we all from outside the US look a lot same like people from one country miss?” He continued talking. “I was raised as one of the many children for my parents in Liberia miss. So, what do you go to school for? Nursing? Lots of Indians are doctors and nurses. Do you know that hospital on Independence, Presbyterian something? They have a lot of doctors from India there miss”

I am in Adapted Sports…[pausing a second to say] like Paralympic sports..Do you know about it?

SB: “Oh yeah! you guys do that sports thing with peoples who have disabilities right? That is such a blessed work. So nice so nice miss!”

I paused a bit before I continued talking because I didn’t know his name and I am so used to conversing with people by using their names where ever possible. “So, have you seen any adapted games in live?” 

SB: “No, but we know. They are everywhere these days. You see ads and all and then you see so many friends sharing these videos on Facebook always. It is amazing that people who don’t have hands and legs can do so much!”

Does Super Shuttle treat you well?

SB: “Oh yeah! I work 5 day/week. They are very fair and nice people at work.

That is good! Its good to know they treat you well! So you help your family back home? You send them money?

SB: “Yeah, I send $100 and that is about 8500 money back home. Helps a lot to send even $100…So… You get scholarships? A lot of Indians I pick up every week. All of them in colleges. Every Indian takes college seriously. Always working hard in college. No fooling around. So many rich Indians in Plano and Frisco. So nice to know hard work pays someday.”

[By now I was smiling and imagining the multiple factors that contribute to the ‘high’ number of Indians in Plano and Frisco. And coming to many Indians in colleges, I can’t but wonder how many even know where they are headed.]

I break my thoughts and say, “Yeah, studying beyond high school is important and for some people it works. They have help. Turning back looking at me with a smile in his eyes, he nodded affirmative. 

SB: “Yeah, my brothers and sisters are old enough to come and work here now. I am processing the papers and they should come here soon. I want to save enough for myself also because I want to go to college too. Someday.. Now if they come and can earn too, we can all go to school. So, do you get a scholarship miss?”

I am on a student loan for tuition and an on campus job pays my bills. 

SB: “Oh, that is good! Very good!”

You can sometimes qualify for some university programs that will help you pay for college but that will put you out of work because you should go to school full time then. 

SB: “Yeah, that is nice but I can’t do that now. But once my brothers and sisters come here, I will definitely try to apply for such programs. Thank you for telling me. I never thought of such options.”

Do you know that some of my most favourite songs are by a Jamaican band called Boney M?

[I cannot believe to how many people of African heritage that I have introduced Boney M. It is like I am born many years after they stopped singing but I am still stuck in their peak years of music]

I played the song on Youtube for him on loud volume and he was all tearing up listening to that song. I quickly scribbled the song’s name for him on a piece of paper as we pulled into the airport. 

SB: “In my country, there are so many languages. Don’t know what language this is but the music reminds me of home..my country.. I haven’t gone home on 11 years. Next year I want to go home.. [He broke down and kept wiping his eyes with his collar]

So you are finally going to meet your family? 

SB: “My parents are long gone. When we were kids. I just miss my country and my home. I will go next year if I am lucky”

I got down the shuttle, gave him a ten dollar bill and told him, “this is not a lot but I want you to continue and believe that your siblings will come here. You will all be family again. I want you to go to college some day and feel proud of what ever you want to pursue as a career. I want you to help more Liberians study and do well.”

For many of us, we get to eat a meal we crave for, buy what ever we desire and watch a movie we want to. Our family ( or parents) are a call away. Or even sometimes, hardly a plane ride away. But unfortunately how often I see that these exact blessings are so invisible to us. We don’t realise how irreplaceable these people are and how invaluable their presence in our life is. We are lost in our own perceptions and pains leading everyone around us into a vicious cycle. I wonder how would the same perceptions and pains take shape if one is made to face the decision of their life with life and death on either sides of one single choice one has to make: Like leaving one’s country for almost forever to find a safe job to work in and send money home.

I was on my way to a vacation last Thanksgiving and this conversation happened. I got on the flight with a lump in my throat and cried out (while writing this in my journal) till I could almost forget the look I saw in Sangray Bangalee’s eyes. It is a curse sometimes when you can be sensitive to other person’s suffering. Everyday when I pray, I wonder if his siblings are here and if they are all one happy family living together. Sangray’s case is not alone. We cannot solve all the world’s problems. But we can at least regard what blessings we have. We can share our blessings with others. That is all that we can do as mere humans. Otherwise, we will, as a human race continue to grow in numbers but be of the worst possible quality.

 

 

 

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