Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Chasing Wanderlust

The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page –Saint Augustine
Our world is a fascinating place- rendered exciting by its plethora of landscapes, people, culture and life styles. ‘To travel the world’ is an item in the bucket list of most of us. We often wish to travel, but never seem to be able to do it on a regular basis and end up blaming our busy lives, work schedules and dwindling finances for not making the trips we planned for. In our midst, we have those fortunate people who always seem to find time to follow their passion – they too are bound by deadlines at work, they too have children who have classes and exams and most of the other ‘detractors’ we point out for not being able to travel. How do they do it?, we have often wondered, while enviously going through their tour photos in the social media.
We are here to provide some answers to these bugging questions, for in our midst, in the VSSC community, we have a traveller who has taken life in his stride and fulfils his thrill for travel on a regular basis. Meet Renjith Das, a VSSC employee who has been to over 13 countries since 2011, and is in the process of preparing to cover 15 countries in 25 days this year. A few excerpts from an interview with him (which, incidentally, was taken while he was travelling on train)...
About you...
I am a native of Nedumangad in Trivandrum. I joined VSSC in 2008 and currently live in Sreekaryam. My family comprises my wife Lizy, who is an Assistant Professor at LBS College of Engineering, Trivandrum, and two kids – Lavanya and Rino.
Planning your travel...
My first foreign trip was to Malaysia and Singapore, in 2011. My motivation for travel was further fuelled by my friend Mr. Mathew John. We do not book our tours through travel agencies or tour packages, we manage the Visa processing, planning and implementation on our own. Generally, we plan a destination well in advance. The place is chosen based on its popularity, travel and accommodation expenses and scenic beauty. We try to travel during the summer vacation, when the schools are closed; however, other factors at times force us to travel during non vacation times as well. We wait for the perfect air fare and book well in advance to get cheaper air and hotel fares. For Asian countries, we book around 7 months in advance, usually in Air Asia, as the tickets are cheaper. Once the tickets are booked, we plan the tour using google maps and reviews from friends who have been there or work there, or websites like trip advisor. Wherever we go, I take a local sim card with data so that I can access google maps. We take public transport as much as possible and hire self driven vehicles for other trips. We select average hotels for stay based on their facilities and customer reviews, distance from train or bus stations and car parking facility. Since we are travelling with kids, we plan our luggage in advance; start preparing our bags two weeks prior to departure, and carry a lot of snacks as well. However, the children have attuned to different places and manage well during our trips.
Travel within India....
We have covered most Indian states except for some states in the North East region. For short distance trips within South India, we go by our own car. My longest trip by car is a tour to Mumbai. Due to high air fare, we planned to go by car. We stayed the night at Kasargode and proceeded to Goa via the scenic konkan route - resplendent with greenery, hair pin curves and beautiful sights. After four days in Goa, we set off to Mumbai. After another four days in Mumbai, we returned through the Pune express highway.
  Managing different languages, food, people, cultures....
English would serve the purpose in most countries. However, in Macau, we came across a communication barrier and had to resort to sign languages to get about. Each country has a unique style and has its own beauties and problems. In terms of the people, food and culture, my vote for the best country goes to Indonesia. However, their transportation system needs to be improved. I came across the biggest traffic jam of my life in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Singapore is the best country in terms of planning, while England, Ireland and India take the top slots when it comes to scenic beauty. Wherever I have been to, we have been treated with respect as a tourist. Since I travel with my family, we get additional respect wherever we go. One thing that we need to note is the cleanliness in foreign countries. They are very particular about keeping their surroundings clean – which is something we Indians need to learn. Dustbins and public toilets are a common sight in most foreign countries. The punctuality of the public transport system should also be applauded. Among the countries I had visited, I found USA vastly different from India – different with respect to Time zones, food, people and weather. I have had my own share of culture shocks as well, one being the first time I saw women smoking and drinking during my Europe trip. With regard to food, we usually have continental breakfast pre-booked at the hotel where we stay. We try to sample the cuisine of the place we are visiting and also find Indian food in most places. McD and KFC are also frequently found in most places.
Interesting/Unpleasant experiences....
The first one that comes to mind is a scooter ride with family through the entire Bali island – a spontaneous decision which added to the thrill. The island hopping speed boat ride in Langkawi was really exciting. So is getting the first glimpse of famous places like Niagra Falls, White House, Taj Mahal, Petronas Towers or NASA.  I have driven a car in 6 countries and a bike in two countries.
Talking about unpleasant experiences, there was this time when I lost my wallet in Langkawi and spent a nerve racking day before I got it back, by God’s grace. Another one is when we were caught by the Scottish police for being in a restricted area near a nuclear reactor. We had been taking photos of the place, which is quite near the beach, and didn’t see any sign keeping visitors out. They were very polite and let us off soon.
Dream trip....
A trip to the Arctic Circle, during Christmas, to revel in all the ice. We had our share of fun in the ice when we stayed for around 5 days at Denver in USA. However, this is what can be called my dream trip.
Christmas in London....
It was during a trip to Ireland that one of my friends suggested spending Christmas in London. We stayed in London during the Christmas Eve as well as the New Year. That was quite an experience. We stood in a long queue for around one and a half hours in freezing cold zero degrees to attend mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral. However, most attractions were closed on account of Christmas. We glimpsed the New Year fireworks at London and saw the London bridge opening for ships. Days are much shorter during winter in Europe with temperatures plunging below zero degrees. Even during summer, the temperature is a benign 18 degrees. 
How does travel shape an individual...
Personally, travel gives us exposure, improves our knowledge and boosts our confidence and communication skills. My kids have benefitted immensely from travel. Besides that, when we travel, we connect with the place so that when we later hear any news or event connected with that place, we can imagine what it would really be like.
Future plans.....
In the immediate future, we have planned a trip to Europe in July. The trip is spread over 25 days and we plan to cover 15 countries including Germany, France and Switzerland. This is the longest trip I have undertaken and we have booked the tickets and accommodation. Most of the journey is by train. In the future, we plan to keep on travelling, visiting new places and meeting new lives and lifestyles.
We hope the readers join us in wishing Mr Renjith and family a pleasant trip to Europe and much more interesting trips in the years to come. We wish you would soon fulfil your dream of travelling to the Arctic Circle for Christmas. He is an inspiration for those of us who love to travel but put it off citing excuses which, as he showed us, can be surmounted if we are willing to set our hearts to it.

 travel makes you realise that no matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn”.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Smiling Through Life

It is a blessing to be born without any deformities, with all organs intact. Not all who are born in the world are endowed with the same faculties - some are born differently abled. There are people who moan and grumble about it, cursing their fate and leading a life of abject misery; there are others who accept their condition, challenge their fate and take it head on, smiling their way through, and leading a near-normal life. Lekshmi G, Senior Translator in Hindi Section, VSSC, is one person who emphatically belongs to the second group. Born with a condition known as Cerebral Palsy (CP), she has been struggling throughout her life; nevertheless, she remains amazingly positive and is always pleasant. Team Voyage caught up with her for a chat on a scorching afternoon in Trivandrum. Her enthusiasm and determination shone through the entire conversation. Excerpts for the readers…
About your parents and childhood……
A native of Changanacherry, I was a premature baby born through a normal delivery. When I was born, I didn’t cry like all babies do. Probably, this damaged my brain cells, leading to my condition. As months passed by, my parents noticed that, though I talked a lot, I showed no inclination to move about like babies of my age. Although I attended a nursery school and a ‘nilathezhuthukalari’ to learn the alphabet, my parents were initially hesitant to enroll me in first standard, worried that I may not be able to adjust to school life and also expecting that my condition will improve with time. Around this time, my father who worked as a college teacher, got a transfer to Trivandrum, and we moved here. My mother is a home maker. By the time I turned 8, I observed and realised that other kids my age were attending regular school. Thus began the battle to join school and study. Finally, my parents accepted my decision and I was admitted in 4th standard in Holy Cross School at Muttada. That was the first turning point in my life..
The complete lack of a formal education till then posed several difficulties when I commenced my school life. I persevered with determination, and by the end of the school year, was on par with my classmates. I joined the St.Mary’s school at Pattom in my 5th standard and my academic life improved; the teachers, staff and students there were extremely receptive and sensitive to my needs. In between, we moved to Vazhoor in Kottayam, but the undulating terrain and absence of any facility for the physically handicapped made it impossible for me to adapt to the surroundings. So, we moved back first to Changanacherry and then to the capital city, and I continued my education at the same school. I completed my SSLC with flying colours, securing 508 marks out of 600. I did my pre-degree from M.G College in Humanities, achieving first class - an honour achieved in Third group by the college in 15 years. My graduation and post-graduation in Hindi were also from the same college. Thereafter, I undertook a diploma course in translation under the tutelage of Parameshwaran sir in Puthen Street. Throughout my school and college life, my teachers and friends were extremely supportive. Often, they understood my needs and offered assistance without my asking for it.
Getting into VSSC, work, colleagues……
At around the same time that I wound up my formal education, there appeared this employment notification for physically handicapped candidates for the post of Hindi translators in VSSC. I attended the interview on Dec 5, 2000, along with 8 others. My hopes dimmed when I perceived that all the others appeared physically better than me. However, I performed well in the test and interview, and a few days later, got a note through an acquaintance that I had been recruited. There was a minor confusion at that time as the authorities couldn’t mail me the offer letter due to an ongoing postal strike (she smiles at the reminiscence), but it was soon resolved and finally, I joined VSSC on April 26, 2001. During the early days, commuting to the campus and walking to my office from the gate was an arduous task; I would be exhausted and breathless by the time I reached my seat. To overcome this, my father, then in his late 50s, learned to drive a car. We bought a second hand one and procured permission to take it inside VSSC.
Our work primarily involves the translation of office orders, circulars, name plates, seals, tenders, advertisements etc. from English to Hindi and vice versa. Though I have no formal training, my typing is swift, and I have an excellent grasp of letters, pronunciation and the language, besides a good memory. Most of my colleagues are ladies and are very supportive. Actually we support each other. They help me in moving around when needed and carry my heavy bag when I climb the stairs; in turn, I always try to be a good friend to them in every manner. Now, I have countless friends in office. Getting this job was the second milestone in my life..
Difficulties encountered at various stages in life due to your condition and how you have surmounted them……
People with CP struggle with some things that others take for granted – for instance, it is very difficult for me to draw anything or put a thread through a needle, ascend stairs or adjust quickly to a new room/ terrain. But it is also possible to improve/master many of these with physiotherapy and regular practice. Thus, I learned to board an Innova car with continued practice. When I joined VSSC, there was no European toilet in our building, and I was terrified to use the Indian toilet due to my lack of proper balance. I spent a month without visiting the toilet in office. Later, I overcame my fear and started using it. After a year, when I returned from a surgery for my legs, my then Head took the initiative to construct a European toilet, and he got it done quickly, thus doing me a great favour.
There have been instances at different phases in my life when people have mocked me or passed comments behind my back – every time, I have been bold and given them a strong retort. Once, while writing a Maths exam in 4th standard, I was doing my sums and rough work all over my answer sheet, reflecting my lack of formal studies. A boy sitting behind me noticed this, and began making fun of me. I gathered up courage and told him, ”What or how I write in my answer paper is no concern of yours. I am not writing in your answer sheet.” That silenced him (she chuckles). That courage has only kept on growing and my ability to speak up when required has stood me in good stead.
About your family……
The acquaintance with my husband, Shri.Sheeju Chandran, was established through my present Head, Shri.Somji. Through our conversations, we discovered that we shared similar interests and ideas. Our wedding in 2006 was the third highlight in my life. The happiest moment in my life was when my daughter, Rajasri was born in 2007. My family has been a wonderful source of support and encouragement. It was my daughter who trained me to climb down stairs with repeated trials and unlimited patience. The snide comments from some people during my marriage and child birth caused me more pain than the excruciating physical pain that I endured during the plastering and wedging after a surgery to my leg.  But I am incredibly fortunate. My daughter, despite comprehending that her mother is a little different from other mothers, has never had any problems or resentment about it. She takes care of me lovingly when we go out shopping or travelling.
Your hobbies/ interests and travels……..
I enjoy reading hugely, especially Malayalam literature. I used to actively write poems during my school and college days. In fact, I often get technical and non-technical material for translation to Malayalam in office. I also listen to music, watch movies and spend time in whatsapp. Inspired by my daughter, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to my favourite singer, Shri.P.Jayachandran, when he was in Chandrasekharan Nair Stadium for a programme. I have participated and won prizes in elocution, poetry writing and quiz competitions while in school and college.
In the last few years, I have been on some tours too with my family. I visited the Guruvayoor temple for the first time in 2012; it was a long-cherished desire of mine. We have also travelled to Kanyakumari, Hyderabad and recently, to Singapore.

As we prepare to wrap up, Smt.Lekshmi continues her bubbly chatter, enquiring about my colleague whom she was meeting for the first time. This iron lady, who is an epitome of fortitude and optimism, has never let her disability hinder her from pursuing her goals or following her heart. She took the initiative for publicising and selling the umbrellas made by a paralysed lady,  helped by ARPAN, a group of ISRO employees engaged in philanthropic activities, in our office. Her friendly demeanour, willingness to help, self-confidence and positive attitude in life endear her to all those who meet her, expanding the circle of her friends and admirers. Team Voyage salutes this heroine, a glowing light in our midst.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Good Samaritan

A couple of years ago, the then President of India, Abdul Kalam was visiting SHAR to witness a launch. He came to the Launch Control Centre to observe the launch preparations and recollect his old memories in ISRO. Almost everybody in SHAR had gathered there to see the most popular and respected president India has seen. There was a huge rush to catch a glimpse of him. He was moving around wearing his charismatic smile and waving hands.
In one corner of the LCC stood an elderly, frail man, carrying a tea can. He was serving tea to the people who were at work. Seeing him, APJ stopped, took a detour, approached him and enquired “Thankappayi, sukham aano? “ (Thankappayi, are you doing good?). Thankappayi is one of the most popular figures in SHAR, almost everyone who comes to SHAR knows him; but that was the day we realized that even the President of India knew him by name.
The name Thankappayi is synonymous with SOS in SHAR. Food, pass, accomodation, logistics – if you face an issue in any of these fronts, Thankaapayi is the name that you can reliably beckon. The selfless services rendered by this gentle old man during the launch campaigns over the last 4 decades are probably as significant as the hard work put in by our scientists. For our anniversary edition, Team Voyage met Thankappayi at SHAR for an interview.

Tell us something about you and your career at ISRO?
I was working as a tailor, when I got the job of a gardener in ISRO. At that time, there was a promotion option for non-technical staff to get into the technical stream by becoming a technical helper. I started my technical career as a helper; later I got certificate from soldering school (I was a topper) and became a technician. I retired as technician G. During my career, I was sent to Hyderabad for a soldering training and there too, I emerged the topper.
Even though my designation kept on changing, I continued to do all sorts of work that came my way - that of a casual labourer, loading worker, safaiwala, technician, tea supplier and what not!
I joined in 1971, from 78 onwards I am coming to SHAR. There is not a single year from 1978, in which I have not come to SHAR for one activity or the other. I retired in 2001 but still continue to work for ISRO in contract.

Who was your first boss?
I was working with Veeraraghavan sir and Madhavan Nair sir. My CR was written by Madhavan Nair sir. But unlike now, there was no single boss at that time, we used to work as a big family. I had the fortune to work with some of the big names in ISRO, people like Sreenivasan sir, John P Zachariah sir etc.. I was based at TERLS. From TERLS, if I go to Veli for some work and if I am given a job there, then I would do that as well. I was a floating resource at that time. I still remember what R.B.K Menon sir said about me after the success of SLV-3, “For the work that Thankappan has done for ISRO, his salary that we give till his death won’t be sufficient”

Can you tell us something about your experiences with Kalam sir?
Kalam sir used to spend long hours in office. He used to come as early as 6:30 am and would try to finish all paper work before other engineers came to office. I would also reach office at this time in the canteen vehicle that comes to TERLS. I would help him with the Gestetner cyclostyling machine (earlier version of Photostat). He used to be in office till 10:30 pm and I used to stay with him. I had the privilege of returning home with Kalam sir in the same vehicle.

One experience that you will never forget?
During SLV time, there was a strike by the trade unions demanding pay hike. A vibration test was planned the next day and for which lot of checkout racks had to be moved. Nobody was available to load these racks on the truck. Kalam sir was very worried. Seeing this, I voluntarily took charge of loading all the items on the truck single handedly. At those times, the components were so heavy. An aplab power supply used to weigh around 65 kg. Without any support, I loaded all these systems into the truck and the next day, the vibration happened as scheduled. Kalam sir was extremely happy.

From when did you start coming to SHAR?
I started coming to SHAR in the 70s, when the work on the block house for SLV commenced. We used to send checkout racks from VSSC. Once the items were loaded in the truck, I would board a train and reach SHAR. After all the items are unloaded, I would go back to Trivandrum. That used to be the first round of trips.

You have seen the launch campaign evolve over the years. What are the major changes that you have noticed?
Ever since my SLV3 days, I have never missed any launch campaign. SLV, ASLV, PSLV, GSLV, LVM3, RLV, ABPP, I have got the opportunity to work in all these campaigns.
From my personal point of view, in a pre-mobile era, during the last minute campaign activities, when different teams had to go to work at different times at night, they used to request me to wake them up for attending to the activity. I used to stay awake continuously for 3-4 days to ensure that all teams reached their work place on time. Nowadays, everyone manages with the alarm in their mobiles.

In the last couple of years, when ISRO’s activities were at their peak, how many days have you spent in SHAR?
I was in SHAR continuously for two years without going home even once during that period. Many people had asked me - Don't you have regrets about not being able to spend time with family?
As I mentioned earlier, I come from a very poor family. After so many years of service, I still don’t own a piece of property in my name. All my life, I have stayed in small houses with my entire family. I never had the luxury of staying in my own room. But see what ISRO has given me, I am provided an independent room with an attached bathroom, I have a table of my own, a cot to sleep. ISRO is taking good care of me and I have no regrets.
Do you know, perhaps I will be the most illiterate person in ISRO. I have studied only till eighth standard. With this qualification, I got an opportunity to work with some of the most educated people!
This is how I earn a living and I am happy doing it. Now at this age, I am trying to buy a piece of land for my granddaughter. 

You had the opportunity of working with bosses like Shri.Madhavan Nair who later became chairman of ISRO? How do you recollect those memories of working with them?
I always had a cordial relationship with my bosses. They trusted me and I tried my level best to do justice to the trust they reposed on me. In all these years, I had so many bosses from all generations to the extent that I may be the individual who has worked under the maximum number of bosses. I have never differentiated between my superiors as senior boss or junior boss. I have never gone back to any of my ex- bosses asking for favours when they were promoted to prestigious posts.

You are popular in ISRO mostly as the man who provides food for people. How did you get associated with this?
While I was in SLV project itself, I used to book a couple of extra food coupons for people who land up in SHAR. At that time, this advance booking, online booking etc were not there. As the project progressed and activities peaked, the number of coupons increased and slowly I got associated with this. I still remember what Madhavan Nair sir publicly told after SLV3 launch.."Thankappan's hard and sincere work towards this mission will always be remembered. He is an allrounder!!"
As the projects became bigger and the number of facilities involved also increased, I used to go around all facilities asking for people in need of lunch, high tea etc. And gradually, that became one of my main occupations. I decided - let people do the technical work and I will manage their logistics requirements. I always carry a list of people who are working for various projects in the different facilities.
I got a complicated nick name because of this service "Anna Dada Chutti Bhavan" (Loosely translates to: the God who roams around and gives food)
Till a few years ago, I was arranging drinking water too for all the facilities.

At this age, it would be exceedingly difficult for you to carry out these logistics activities the way you managed earlier. How do you overcome these physical constraints??
I have my share of health issues as well. Especially towards the final phase of campaigns, when I generally have sleepless nights owing to the round-the-clock schedules in which people work, I have fainted a couple of times. During one of the launches, I was hospitalized for 5 days at the SHAR hospital. But I don't bother much about my health. I consider the job to be more important than my health. I am a strong believer in God and I feel that He gives me sufficient strength to carry out my work.
In my long career spanning all these years, I have never submitted a fake bill for anything that I have purchased - food, snacks, tea or anything else..I think it's only because of my honesty that God has blessed me with the endurance to carry out my duties at this age. I am 76 now.

Were there any complaints against you? Anything that you know of?
Once P.S.Nair sir (Admin officer during SLV period) called me to enquire about a complaint that he received about me. The complaint was that I sing whenever I am at work. I told sir about my past. When I was a tailor, I used to sing continuously as I did the stitching; it was a habit that I found difficult to stop. He replied that he doesn't have any issues with my singing during work. He also said that he knew that I did the physical labour of 4-5 people, so he would let me have my little joys while at work. At that time, for SLV, I was even carrying the furniture to different rooms for setting up offices.

Do you have any regrets about your career in ISRO?
All these years, I have done whatever job my bosses has asked me to do. I have never complained that this work doesn’t come under my purview nor have I asked how you can ask a technician to do this job. I did those jobs without expecting any thing, but howsoever you deny it, when awards are distributed and you see less- deserving people receiving them, you always have a feeling of dejection. That gloom I have experienced at various moments; but it I could always overcome that with the love that you people give me.
Do you know, one of our technicians has written a poem about me, praising my good services? Now I understand that such recognitions are more valuable than the excellence awards that we get.
Another regret I had is that I couldn’t participate in the last rites of my brother and sister who expired few days before a launch.

Owing to the extended working hours of this sincere man, we could schedule the interview only after repeated attempts and that too, late at night. Many a famished stomach has been satiated by the food coupons provided by Thankappayi; numerous brains, burning the midnight oil during launch campaigns, have been rejuvenated by the timely tea supplied by him.  He continues to toil ceaselessly for ISRO and its people altruistically, without grumbling, defying age and exhaustion. The goodwill from the countless people served by him far surpasses the value of any excellence award. Team Voyage acknowledges the decades of diligence and labour put in by this gallant soul.