Saturday, 14 March 2015

Media, the internet and the panic

So, this is my second blog post, ever.
Wow, didn't think I'd make it this far. Although, I'll admit, I had been thinking for a week now, on what I could possibly write about. My thoughts and my general disposition towards my fellow beings on campus and life, in general were somewhat hampered by lingering pain from my knee, in other words I was extremely short tempered and surly almost all the time.

So, how did it happen? I was on my bicycle and heading to my fluid mechanics lab one sunny afternoon, when I went over a corner too fast. And like most streets in India, there were people walking bang in the middle of the road as if they've been paid to.

I tried to brake in time to avoid hitting anyone, but unfortunately, I ended up flattening one poor soul who was completely unaware of my approach. And then, promptly I fell on top of him, smashing my knee on the concrete. Perhaps it was punishment from the beyond, but the thing was, in the aftermath, he walked away fine, (bruised, but fine) and I was limping along with my bicycle to my lab.

The leg was pretty stiff, and wouldn't let me bend the knee very much. On the second day, it swelled up a bit, and I seriously considered going to the campus hospital. Immediately after I fell, I believed, despite the pain, that I had merely sustained a bruise, nothing more. But now, all sorts of dilemmas presented themselves to me.

What if I had fractured something and I didn't notice? What if it needed surgery? What would I do? How long would I be out of the system if I were to have said surgery? I felt scared. One of the thoughts that struck me as I placed a bottle of ice-cold water over the knee, was that possibly, I might have torn a ligament in the knee. All at once, my brain flooded me with information about the anatomy of the knee, the ACLs, PCLs, and the time needed for recovery after surgery.

As these ominous thoughts churned over in my head, I realized something.

Let me explain. I am a huge fan of the NBA and some other American sports leagues. I gives my folks at home a lot of grief and certainly, it earns me a lot of eye-rolls amongst my peers, stricken as they are with cricket and soccer fever. But it was something I did out of personal interest, and the very act of seeing a few scores and some highlights of some of the games was a small joy for me.

And recently with the increase in competitiveness of the games, from the grass root levels, athletes come up to the professional levels much stronger, faster and bigger. The strain they put on their bodies is enormous and it leads to them injuring themselves quite often. A very common problem that many athletes have faced is the torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament. Without going into much detail, the ligament is basically the string that holds the upper leg and lower leg in a line. Without the string, the lower leg slips off, and the injured person is unable to control his walking motion.

There have been several media articles written about this, including a statistical analysis about the trends that cause such tears, as well as extremely specific articles that explain the injury from the medical as well as the emotional- the personalized experience of the injured athletes recovery and rehab- perspectives. The collective dismay and the reactions of fans and observers are also reflected severely in the form of news reports, twitter posts and other blogs.

The truth is though, that in any sport or any physical activity, including in my case, the very act of cycling somewhere, comes with the inherent risk of injury. This is known to us as a fact. However, the media, now empowered by readily available data and news outlets that spin out stories almost instantaneously after an event of even moderate significance, choose to create a kind of 'information overload'.

Statistics can now be easily calculated using readily available and free tools online, and news updates too are becoming more of an online phenomenon. Take twitter for example, it's easy to access, the data it spins out is concise, links and photos can be uploaded to updates as well. As a result, journalists, companies and organizations take to posting information in short 'bites' on their pages, along with links and photos.

This data availability also exacerbates another problem that people have been talking about for years.

Media initiated panic.

Why did I fear that I had torn a ligament, even though it probably wasn't the case? (I was able to walk normally after a four days) I had read so many article, and lists detailing the injury from every possible angle; videos of athletes running after recovery, interviews, lists of athletes recovering from torn ligaments, medical articles, statistical correlations between ligament injuries and food habits, the works. So literally, the idea that one could easily rupture his ACL was firmly planted in my mind.

So, I called my dad and asked him anxiously. Did I tear something?, will I need surgery?, will it really take six months to recover? To his credit, my dad stayed calm and asked me about the current status of the knee. I told him, that while walking had been tough for a few days after the fall, right now, I could walk normally and bend the knee to an extent, but not fully. And I couldn't run either.

Fortunately, it sounds like a strained tendon in the back of my knee, which is something I'm truly relieved to hear. My dad told me take it easy on that leg for a week, and that it probably wasn't anything serious.

This leads me to the final part of my post. I'm a member of the college magazine and this month, we were doing a cover story on the impact of the internet and how indispensable it has become in our lives. Our smartphones are now so... well, smart that, once again, the effect of data availability can be seen. People talk and react about something that happens barely minutes ago, such is the instantaneous nature of our times.

So, we were discussing our smartphones and their impact and the issues that we could address in the story on a message board, when, I mentioned that I had lost my smartphone for a couple of days sometime ago. There is a big story behind this, but I'll save it for later, when I'm scrambling for topics to blog about.

I mentioned how I felt when I lost the phone, and these are my honest feelings. It felt like the early stages of recovery from an addictive drug, Without my phone, I couldn't check my messages, which was crucial as nearly all the information regarding classes and assignments is conveyed to us via messages. I was also cut off from Facebook, and google, so I couldn't see what my friends were upto and I couldn't browse the internet. But, that wasn't the main problem that I was faced with.

The main problem was the feeling of emotionally anxiety and aloneness without my phone. When I mentioned this in the message group, the first reply that I received was "Oh yeah, that feeling of being left behind or missing out"

This was not what I had meant, but when I pondered over it, I found that it actually made sense. For, me the functioning of my phone and my knee were things that I rarely thought about. Not to the point were I took it for granted, but yes, I would curse loudly and crudely if a page I wanted to see didn't load quickly enough and I did have a few choice words to utter at my knee when it crumpled like a twig when I tried to run for the first time after my fall.

So, this leads to another thought. We often mention to each other in the passing 'oh hey, did you hear, that guy's phone screen cracked when he dropped it on the road' or 'hey did you check out this article about this unlucky guy who broke nearly every bone in his body?' and there was a real case recently, when a couple of zealous fourth year students, attempting to take a short film got a friend of theirs to jump off the first floor of a building under construction. He was supposed to fall into a pile of sand, but instead ended up tearing out his ligaments.

So, that's it. We mention it, and forget about it. It's now upto said person to make his way back to a life of normalcy. But, have we actually wondered about that? The whole process of making your way back from something that upsets your life as it is? More than once for my knee alone, I've wished the pain would just go away and that I could be all better at once. So how would a person, such as the ill-advised stunt-jumper feel as he tries to make his way back from an injury that requires surgery.

I've never thought about it like this before, probably because I'm still pretty young, but health has never been very high on the parameters for success for me. But, now I'm inclined to think otherwise. Health is probably a paramount parameter for success, and only after that I feel comes the rest.

Thank you for reading. 

Monday, 2 March 2015

Celebrating Technology and Chasing our "Real Dreams"

February's gone.

And just like that, we're already Two months into the new year.
Surprising really, how time passes by. I know I'm still not used to the fact that we are in the year 2015. I probably won't be either, probably not until around when June comes by.

My college, NIT-Trichy, celebrated it's annual Techno-Fest, Pragyan. for the Eleventh time ever. The tagline of Prgayan is 'Lets Celebrate Technology', which, for me is, for want of a better word, interesting, In my first year, I've heard a lot of tales about Pragyan, and now, in my second year, I still have no idea if they are true or not.

One of the stories whispered about, were that the name of the fest itself, Pragyan, came about in a tongue-in-cheek moment, suggested by one of the founding students after one of his ex-girlfriends. Sounds ridiculous I know, and the official story is that the name was chosen by a vote amongst the founding members. Pragyan does mean 'Supreme Intelligence' in Sanskrit, so there is some merit to the official version.

But, why couldn't it have been the former? It would have been really cool if it turned out to be the case. Sadly, I, at the very least will probably never know the truth. The very fact that such a rumour existed however, does give us some thoughts to munch over, about the mindset that the founders had when they set about to create a student-organized tech fest.

Creating Pragyan ground up, from scratch for the first time, would have entailed a lot of hard work and effort. And, not only that, it would have taken a kind of obsessive love and passion towards technology. It would have meant that they admired and loved engineering and innovation so much so that they created a platform for them to share their joy of 'celebrating technology' with others. Although, to be honest, the 'Let's celebrate...' tagline was adoped only in 2011, by which time, Pragyan had probably evolved and grown beyond what its founders had envisioned for it.

It was my second Pragyan, and the third overall college fest that I was able to attend. I had missed out on Festember, the college's cultural fest (No prizes for guessing when it occurs) in my first semester, as I had chosen to go home, rather than staying back for the celebrations. I feel bad about that now, not only because, I ended up missing something cool, but also the reasons for my departure.

The friends that I hung out with then, had decided to leave for Chennai during Festember, and I, not wanting to be left out, went with them. I didn't stop to consider for even once, that maybe I should think and take the best decision for myself, instead of taking the easy route of 'going with the flow'. Since then though, I've reformed a bit, and started to decide what I wanted to do for myself.

I was in campus for the next iteration of Festember, and of course, I was there for Pragyan 14 as well. The experience was not perfect, and there was a decent bit of the bad mixed in with the good, but overall, I grew a lot, saw a lot of cool things, and improved my perceptions on a lot, lot of things.

After my first Festember though, I noticed a visible difference between the atmosphere at Prgayan 15. Earlier, Pragyan was the only fest that I had had a chance to experience, so I had nothing to compare it with, Now, after Festember 14, I found that the air was much more serious, muted even at Pragyan.
The crowds too, were sparser, more calculated and less likely to amble along leisurely, like tourists. This was not necessarily a bad thing, as Prgayan is, at heart, a tech fest, where people generally come to attend workshops and participate in serious events involving a lot of coding, wiring and a lot of technical know-how.

In the middle of all of this though, is an odd set of events called 'infotainment'. These are events, which are supposed to be technical, or at the very least, scientific, but entertaining at the same time. This year, Pragyan invited a troupe of fire artists from Czechoslovakia. Their connection with 'science' is mild, at best, unless they were planned to be used as live targets for a new method to extinguish fire, but damn, they put on a show.

The show occured at Seven-ish in the evening, at the sports ground, which was perfect. Lots of sand, very little flammable material nearby, although, in retrospect, was it a good idea for the fencing that separated the crowd from the performing stage to be made our of dry wood? Luckily though, nothing untoward happened and the show was a blast.

I was transfixed by what I saw. It was incredible. Their performance could almost be called a dance, and it involved a lot of stylish actions, quick, precise movements of their wrists and hands and from what I could see, a lot of confidence. They performed using long torches, lit with live fire at both ends and with cloth-covered slings, also alight with flame.

Heavy Metal and Rock music blared over the speakers over the course of their performance, and to be frank, the crowd couldn't get enough of the complicated twirls, spins and crossovers that the threesome (There were three performers) executed flawlessly. I was struck by the scene, which reminded me of depictions of hell, with fire raging everywhere, but I marveled at the beauty and the intricacy of the performance.

At first, the three performed solo, with each showing off his (There were two men and a woman) prowess with the flaming torch and the sling. The woman also performed using a many-branched frame, carrying several small flames. But, then they suddenly crossed over and danced together, the flames weaving, a mere blur,  through the gaps in between their tightly swaying bodies.

The audience gasped and clapped in awe, struck by their talent. And that was when I noticed something interesting. The faces of the performers, all the three of them, and in particular, the woman, bore no sign of stress or fatigue. At all.

In Fact, the woman was actually smiling, as she confidently stepped past her partner, swinging the flaming torches in her hands in an intricate pattern, firm in the knowledge that she would not hit him in error,

So, let me ask you then, can you smile, while you are literally holding death in your hands? While you are pretty much as close to the edge as you can possibly be? Undoubtedly, the clothes that the performers wore had some anti-inflammation properties, but the flames themselves would exude hot gas and heat. The hands of each member of the troupe would be feeling unbelievably hot, singed and dangerously sweaty, which brings me to my second question.

When your current condition is as slippery as that, do you trust in your practice and more importantly do you trust yourself to walk up to your partner, fire in hand, and perform confidently, while smiling all the way?

It says a lot about their talent and ability, true. But it also speaks volumes about their dedication and the passion that they must have for their jobs. Honestly, this was the kind of job, that one would not enlist oneself in unless he truly loved doing it.

We talk so much about how we want to chase our dreams and do what we 'really' wanted to do during our childhood, but would we approach it with the same love and dedication?

I had a friend once, back in eight grade. He told me that he wanted to become an astronaut. But when the subject of 'what do you want to do after your schooling' came up again (It has now become 'What do you think you want to do after college?'), in tenth grade,  he told me clearly that he wanted to become a software engineer, maybe work a few years in an IT company and then join his father in the family business. I felt upset when I heard this, because if felt that he had given up his original dream.

There was another guy from my school that I knew around the same time as well. He was pretty good at dancing and everyone in the school knew about that. But around the time we were in our eleventh grade, he would do pretty badly in, just about every test given to him. And each time, he'd blame his father for forcing him to study in a conventional school, when what he truly wanted to become was a professional dancer.

But the thing was, I had never seen him take the initiative to try and make that happen. Or at the very least, to try to make the best out of what looked like a bad situation. He would just sit in a corner of the classroom, content and in solace with the fact that he had a 'different' dream, that he was breaking convention by declaring his dancing ambitions. He stayed like that till the end of 12th grade.

Today, both of them are engineering students, in different colleges. I have since lost touch with both of them, which is something that I honestly regret. I am currently endeavoring to find out their current status, but I can tell this with certainty.

It isn't enough to have a 'different dream', or to just dream big. You just need to love what you dream of doing and follow through with it. It doesn't matter if you want to become something that people scorn or deem to be 'cliched' these days, such as engineering or medicine. All you need is to love it. You need to love it with a passion that gives birth to a confidence akin to that displayed by that pretty Czech woman from the fire troupe; the confidence to handle fire without the fear of getting burnt.