I was in my third year of engineering college. The university had recently launched the 'sandwich' program. No, it wasn't about the design of structurally sound sandwiches! What it meant was that students in the 3rd and 4th year would spend one semester each year in in-plant training. They would work in a factory gaining precious hands-on experience.
It all seemed so exciting. The first week was full of new experiences. I imagined that soon I would be operating many of the machines on the shop floor by myself. Robotic machines whizzed and whirred and the air was pierced by the steely smell of lubricant oil. Machine operators in their overalls smiled at us as we walked past. Eating in the cafeteria seemed so community-like. The bus ride to the factory went through parts of the city I had never visited.
But, time can dull the sheen of even the most beautiful experiences. The first time I had a buffet meal in a 5 star hotel, the first time I held a girl's hand in a movie theatre, the first bite of an exotic mango-steen... they all soon become 'ordinary'.
Everything that's starts exciting and fascinating soon fades.
By the fourth week, reality had set in. The company bus picked me up at 6:30am. It was a 50-minute ride. Around me, I saw people double and triple my age who had been doing this routine for years. Time had dulled away the sheen of joy and wonder from their faces. I made some friends. They were lovely people. They were happy and content. But every day was exactly the same. Or so at least it seemed to me.
On the factory floor, I realised that we were not going to be operating any machines by ourselves. We were to be observers. There were computerised machines in the CNC room and I was dying to learn how to code them. There was a design department and I couldn't wait to start working on some engineering designs of my own. But we were to observe. Weeks seemed like years, and days seemed like weeks.
That is the most painful prison to be confined in - to be forced just to observe and not be able to do anything.
No agency. No power. No freedom.
Well in a way freedom was there. I could choose not to go at all and fake the certificate. But that was not the kind of freedom I wanted.
Humanity is going through a crisis at a global level. Most of us haven't experienced a situation at this scale in our lifetimes.
The human organism is suffering. My country is suffering. People I know and don't know are suffering. There is inequality. Lives are being lost. There is bad news every day.
I can only observe.
People are panicking.
The government is messing up.
Families are running around helpless.
The infrastructure and systems are crumbling.
And I can only observe.
Every day, heaviness and gloom fill my heart. I feel powerless.
I started changing my experience of the sandwich program during the bus ride to the company and back. I would close my eyes create a world of my own. I practised my music scales in my mind. I had no guitar and no metronome on the bus. Yet I was able to practise what my teacher taught me. For 30 to 35 minutes of the bus ride, I could clearly see my guitar's rosewood fretboard in my mind's eye. I practised all the diatonic major scales across the length and width of my guitar. It took some discipline and perseverance, but it was amazing. I did this every day for 3 months.
I would stand beside the machine operators. I offered to clean the scrap that falls off blocks of steel as the cutting tools strip away the metal. I would stand alert and every 5 minutes clean and wipe before the operator would have loaded the next part.
I asked them questions and told them my stories. I ate lunch with them. I dropped my ego of being an 'engineer'.
Things changed slowly from there. They began giving me a lever to hold on to, a wheel to turn and over time, an entire part to operate on.
By the end of the training period, I was only of the only trainees to be sent to Chennai for an entire month to install a robotic machine for one of the company's clients.
We always have power. It starts inside our heads.
However small I may be, however powerless I may be, I don't have to remain a passive observer.
Every human being needs to believe that they matter. Each of us needs to feel that our actions mean something. We need to feel that we have the power to make a change - however small it may be. Else we cannot feel alive.
That power starts inside our heads.
It starts with us creating a mental space where we have the power to act. It starts with us changing the gloom and heaviness surrounding us into lightness and possibility - inside our heads. It starts with us finding the light within.
Light up your world inside, irrespective of what's happening outside.
When you are lit inside, you can give some light to the world. There is enough gloom already. The world does not need you and me to amplify it.
When you are feeling light inside, you are already contributing to the world. That is a service you are doing to humanity.
It's our responsibility and duty to find a way to stay lit inside.
Here are some ideas to light up your inner world
- Help one person
- Make one person feel cared for
- Stop watching a screen passively and create an active inner world
- When you have a moment of rest, enjoy it.
- Play something with your family - board games, art, sports
- Cook something, feed someone.
- Volunteer what you can
So many beautiful people around the world are finding their power within. Such amazing work is being done by volunteers, active citizens, teachers, parents, government servants, medical staff.
Spread the positive news. Stay calm and lit. Humanity needs you.
Do you have any stories of people around you staying 'lit' in these times? Please do share their story. Let's empower more people to light up.
(Art by Aditya Jhunjhunwala & Ankita Parashar)