Sunday, November 29, 2015

I am ready with the tools, Sir

Living in own house has its advantages in comparison to life in a rented house. There are many physical benefits in addition to emotional comforts. There is no problem of the searching scrutiny of the landlord, especially if he or she is living in another part of the building. Lady of the house can go on buying whatever she wants as there is no problem associated with packing and movement while changing houses. Rented house is not our property; taking proper care of the building or not can reflect on our values and culture. If this is ignored, there is no problem of maintenance. However, living in own house has its disadvantages too. Even small problems cause more mental tension. The biggest disadvantage is that the problem cannot be transferred to the landlord and denies the pleasure of reminding him repeatedly till it is redressed. On the other hand, if the lady of the house is reminding of the problem repeatedly, intensity of the pain can only increase! The quantity and quality of problems increase as the building ages and becomes old. The troubles are confounded as we would also have aged with the building.

We had one such trouble some years ago. Rodents had made home rather unauthorizedly in the sewerage lines of the house. They had neither obtained permission for settling there nor paying rent, but living and multiplying comfortably. There were disciplined enough not to trespass into the house and fortunately there was no problem inside the house. But the sewerage lines were blocked and water flow was disrupted. It is difficult to find workers to handle these types of issues. Finally one person was located. He came, dug up the entire length of the lines, removed the heaps of muds deposited by the bandicoots and cleared the way. My presence was required throughout the action and he needed support by providing buckets, mugs, pouring water and checking the flow, answering his questions etc. He took a lunch break in the middle of the work and went away for two hours. I could neither go out on other errands nor relax at home as it was not known when he would come back. After he was finally done with the job, water was flowing freely. He said that the lines are to be got covered by someone else as he does not do that type of jobs. The sewerage lines were now left open and could not be left that way for long for well-known reasons. Another person was found for covering the lines, after much efforts. He arrived at his convenience and needed money for cement and bricks before start of the work. Items were bought and work was started, but he said the quantity of cement was insufficient and needed more money for additional purchase. He finished the job, charged more than what was agreed and was about to leave. When asked to clean the surroundings, he said it could be got done by our domestic help on the next day.

The problem of blocked drains returned after one month. The person found for solving it started by advising me that the earlier worker had done a horrible job and hence the problem has returned. He was told to complete the entire work up to cleaning stage. He found co-workers and ran a fat bill. Other troubles in getting the work done were the same like unscheduled lunch and tea breaks, asking for help and observing water flows etc. At last the work was completed but the problem returned after one month. When I mentioned about the problem to friends and relatives, each of them said they had faced similar problems. There is lot of comfort in sharing such problems with friends and relatives. Some of their tales made me feel better because their ordeals were much worse. One friend even said that he had to get a part of the wall re-done because the water was flowing into the foundation after repairs, instead of the sewerage main lines outside the house. Ultimately I had to find the solution myself. I got the entire line replaced using strong pipes instead of brick and cement masonry work. Thankfully the problem has not returned. The bandicoots are probably still learning about penetrating those strong pipes.
My host here in USA had some issues with his house and needed some help to address them. He told me that the worker would come at 11 AM and I was requested to get the jobs done as he would be away on some other work at that time. I reluctantly agreed and braced myself for the ordeal in the light of my earlier experiences. The items for fixing and repair included a small leak in the roof, clearing clogged drains and repairs to the glass doors. A car stopped in front of the house five minutes before 11 AM. The driver waited for five minutes and rang the bell at exactly 11 AM. He asked me to advise the jobs to be done and show the spots. Once it was done, he inspected the problem areas  and said that there were two more issues that required fixing which we were not aware. He showed the spots and suggested that it be got done now or else the problems may aggravate during snowfall. He wanted to know the opening loft position in the house to enable him to reach the ceiling to fix the leak. We said that there is no such loft inside the house. He insisted that the houses have such an arrangement as he knew layout and structure of such houses. He identified the loft, went in it and made a final inspection. He said he would be back on the next day with the required material, at the same time.

He arrived promptly at the appointed time. He wanted to start the work. Out of courtesy, I asked whether he needed any support from me. My host had shown me the tool room in his backyard and I thought some tools lying there could be handy. "I am ready with the tools, Sir", he said looking at his mini truck parked in front of the house. "I have all the items and chemicals required for the jobs as well", he said and proceeded with his work. There were no breaks in the middle of his working. He used a collapsible ladder that was mounted on the truck for climbing over the house. The 15 feet folded steel ladder was extended to about 80 feet for reaching the top of the house. At the end of his work, he collapsed it to its original size and mounted again on the truck, all by himself. I was looking expectantly that my help may be called for holding the ladder, but there was no such request. 

He had identified the tools required for the various components of the work and ready with them at the start of the work. The tool kit had a collection of all tools for every conceivable application available in it. Required material was also kept ready in a bag. What was more impressive was the approach to the work.  He had waste cloth ready with him in his kit for spreading on the ground before placing the small ladder and tools on the floor inside the house, to prevent scratches on the floor and smudges on the carpet. At the end of his work, he cleaned all parts, removed the old screws and nails, shingles that were removed while repairing the ceiling etc. and carried them into a dust bin in his truck. There was no need for any cleaning to be done by the maid on the next day. 

I was now concerned about the amount to be paid for the work done. He said he would send an invoice by mail. The mail duly arrived and my host took care of it. I was advised that the final bill was less than what my host had anticipated. The bill had breakup of items used, inspection charges and service charges. The whole episode was a pleasant one. It was an example of professionalism at its best.
This is not to suggest that all experiences are either as good or as bad as above. There are good experiences as well as bad ones, everywhere. There is scope for planning and display of professionalism in all walks of life. That is what sets apart good workers from the mediocre ones. This also shows the importance of proper training as well as imparting and acquiring necessary skills in various walks of life.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

At the Library

Online dictionary defines a library as "a place set apart to contain books, periodicals and other reading material for reading, viewing, listening, study, or reference, as a room, set of rooms, or building where books may be read or borrowed". Such organizations may be public bodies catering to the needs of the general public or private institutions meant exclusively for their members. The facility may be made available free of charge or for a prescribed fee. Libraries have their own rules and regulations that are to be complied with to avail of their services. Whatever may be the context, the first thing that comes to the mind when the word "Library" is heard is books and books.

The earliest available library for us in our childhood in the Primary school (standard 1 to 4) was the single old bookcase kept in the room of the Head Master in the village school. There were very few books and we neither had access nor the capacity to read and understand their contents. It was not known whether the teachers themselves read those books. When we moved to the Middle school (standard 5 to 7) in the small town, the library was a little bigger with three or four bookcases. One teacher was in-charge of the library and we got 2 or 3 books during a full academic year. The position was much better in the High school with a separate room provided for the library and one period in a week earmarked for "Library" sessions. We could read some newspapers and magazines in the library room during lunch time. Each student had to pay a fee of 50 paisa (Half rupee) every six months as "Reading Room" fee. The college had a regular library with many books, but not many students were interested in the general books by then. Institutions we worked in for a living had their own libraries in big offices and were quite useful with stock of professional and general management books.

Villages hardly got any newspapers in those days. Small town had a few households getting newspapers regularly and one had to visit them in the evening to read the newspapers. Availability of the papers was directly proportional to the mood of the residents of the households. Some were kind to recognize our needs while the behavior of some others bordered on contempt. Three of us friends were regular visitors to the "Municipal Office" of the small town, every morning to read the daily newspapers. We had to wait until the Municipal President and Administrative Officer finished reading them. A new Administrative Officer who came on transfer was kind to instruct the watchman to allow us to read the papers before his arrival on the condition that the papers were handled with proper care by us. That was a big concession for us and a true recognition of our earnestness in those days!

Experience with public library later on were not very happy either, as they worked during the same hours, usually 10 to 5 during the day, when we would be working in our offices. Becoming a member was a difficult task as was borrowing and returning of the books. Much depended on the attitude of the staff manning the counters. Distances between places of work or stay and the libraries did not help matters either.
A few days ago, my hosts here were discussing about seeking an appointment after 8 PM at the local Library in Pennsylvania, for obtaining a passport for their two week old baby, I became alert. It was a surprise to think of an appointment that late in the evening and that too for obtaining a passport! I went along with them and made a round of the local Library and witnessed the process followed for obtention of a passport. There were many interesting features in the functioning of the library and the facilities they provide to the residents of the community. Some of them are given below:
  • Each county (similar to the Districts we have) has a set of libraries in different locations depending on the population of the areas. 
  • The libraries generally work form 9 AM to 9 PM on three days of the week and 9 AM to 5 PM on other three days of the week. Sunday is a holiday. Late working days are especially convenient to people at work during the day time.
  • Membership is free for local residents. Others too can become members by paying a nominal fee. 
  • Application for obtaining a library card can be made on-line. Libraries have easy access for differently abled persons.
  • On-line catalogues are available for reference and choosing books one needs to borrow or refer.
  • If the books needed is not available immediately, there is a system for reserving the books to borrow them when returned by others.
  • If the required book is available in another library of the county or even nearby counties, request for transfer can be made. The book arrives in 2 or 3 days. 
  • A book borrowed in one library can be returned at another library within the county.
  • Returning of books can be made through drop boxes located at the entrance of the libraries and need not be only during working hours and inside the library. Books deposited here are cleared periodically and accounted by the library.
  • In tune with the times, library activity is not confined to books alone. DVDs and E-books are also available at these libraries.
  • Libraries have well-equipped computer centers. Free wireless internet and public laptops and I-pads are available to the members. One hour free laptop use is allowed.
  • Computer centers have facility of scanners and printers available in them. Scanning is free of charge.
  • Self-copying and faxing are permitted for a reasonable fee.
  • Snacks and soft drink vending machines are installed for providing refreshments.

In addition to the above features, Libraries also provide various other services to the community and truly work as centers of learning. Other services provided include:
  • Learning environment for all residents is provided in various forms.
  • Educational programs and classes for different age groups like Pre-school kids, toddlers time, Babies and Books, Pre-school Yoga are held periodically. There are programs for kids, teens and adults as well.
  • Family music classes, computer help and job counseling sessions are held for the required groups.
  • Local author book talks are arranged to encourage local talent.
  • Income-tax forms are available at the libraries.
  • Duly filled Passport applications can be submitted at the Library. A designated official checks them, verifies with the original documents, takes photographs and sends them to the concerned authorities. A prescribed fee is levied for these services. Telephone appointments can be made for these services to avoid waiting time and enable proper planning.
  • Libraries have meeting room facilities for hosting cultural, civic and educational purposes on payment of prescribed fees. Advance booking can be made for such events.

These libraries are managed by Library Boards constituted by local residents. Funding is by local governments as well as donations from general public. Members of the general public can attend the library board meetings and offer suggestions.

I was also advised that some libraries have open gardens as reading rooms. You can pick a book from a tree, read it in its shade and return it to the tree with grateful thanks! I could not visit such a library this time. May be, it has to wait for another time.
Two weeks after the visit to the library with the baby and submission of the passport application, his passport arrived by mail. Obtaining a passport was that simple, thanks to the Library, systems followed and concerned departments. Modren libraries can certainly be agents of change and convenience to the general public!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Trick or Treat?

Remembering ancestors, celebrating harvest time and involving children through various activities during these events is a practice followed in all parts of the world. The name and form of the celebrations may differ from place to place and among societies; the essence and spirit of the festivals and the pleasures sought through them are the same everywhere. 

In our parts of the world, Navaratri or Dusserah (meaning nine nights and ten nights respectively) is celebrated around late September or early October. The festivities run for the entire period and has many forms of activities in different parts of the country. Staging of Ramleela with grand finale on the tenth day, Durga Puja, Ayudha Pooja and grand parades on Vijaya Dashami day are some of the forms of observance. There is a practice of arranging dolls in the houses artistically and tastefully during this ten day period. Children go from house to house in the evenings to see the captivating "Doll display" and enjoy the atmosphere. As the children visit the houses in the evening time, there is a practice of giving some snacks or refreshments to them by the households. During our younger days, we used to look forward to these festivals. Mid term holidays for the schools during the academic year, going to visit relatives, taking part in the evening "Doll show" rounds together enhanced the pleasure of the long period of celebrations. We used to carry small baskets for storing all refreshments received in the houses visited on the evening rounds. Pooling all refreshments and sharing among the siblings and friends was a thrilling experience. Modren life style has robbed the present generation of these pleasures.

In our country, the fortnight after Ganesh festival, second half of Bhadrapad month, is earmarked for remembering the ancestors. Families have a day for performing rituals of the deceased ancestors, as per family practices. The last day of the fortnight (New Moon Day), known as Mahalaya Amavasya, is widely celebrated among all sections as Sarva Pitru Amavasya. This is the time for all relatives to get together in one place, pay tributes to the ancestors and have a grand lunch together. In fact, the period of Navaratri or Dusserah starts immediately after Mahalaya Amavasya. 

Halloween festival observed in Europe, America and other parts of the world is also connected with remembering ancestors and involving children in the celebrations. It is observed on October 31st every year and dedicated to remembering the ancestors and all departed including saints, martyrs and all faithfuls. It's full name is All Hallows' Eve or All Saint's Eve and it is also deemed a harvest festival. Halloween arrives just before winter months. The festival has gained prominence from early 17th century and also said to mean Hallowed evening or Holy evening. Celebration practices include decoration of houses specially for the occasion with lighting and red pumpkins. Lights are used inside carved pumpkins and displayed in front of the houses. Pumpkin carving is itself an art and shops and malls display a variety of carved pumpkins days before the festival. Lanterns are also associated with the festival and there is a story of Jack-O-Lantern representing souls denied entry in both Heaven and Hell (Antara pishachi?).

In addition to decorating houses with pumpkins and lights, other celebration practices include attending special church mass services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. Arranging Halloween costume parties is another popular phase of the festival. All participants including elders dress in special costumes for these parties. Families visit shops and malls for buying the costumes and pumpkin lights days before the event. On the evening of Halloween Day, children dressed in Halloween costumes and carrying Halloween bags go from house to house in the locality with the basic activity of "Trick or Treat?". The phrase "Trick or Treat" represents the children asking house owners whether they should carry out some trick on their property (meaning bringing some damage to it) or the house owners settle for a treat by way of offering candies to them!  Households keep candies, chocolates and similar items and offer to the children coming to their houses dressed in various costumes. Children have a large collection of assorted candies at the end of the rounds on the Halloween night. 

Our experience with Halloween during our earlier visits to USA was confined to decorating the house and offering candies to children on their rounds in the evening. This year it was extended further with one child in our own household making the "Trick or Trade" rounds. There were visits to the malls for purchase of carved pumpkin lights and Halloween dresses. We were also invited to a "Halloween Parade" in the school where all the children and teachers were present in Halloween costumes. The parade was followed by serving of refreshments to the participating children and visitors like us alike. In the evening, we had the pleasure of offering candies to children coming on "Trick or Treat" rounds and moving around with our participant in the rounds. We ourselves did not participate in any Halloween party in special costumes. May be that may have to wait for sometime later!

Halloween celebrations have many things in common with our own Mahalaya Amavasya and Navaratri/Dusserah. Halloween also signals the beginning of three months of celebrations - Thanksgiving day in November and Christmas in December and through to a new year on January first of the next calendar year.