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Sweet home Alabama

Twenty-five years ago, having arrived from India, I joined my office in Atlanta. The company told me - there was a job opening in a small town in rural Alabama. The two previous employees, also from India, experienced such culture shock, they returned to Atlanta unceremoniously. “Are you willing to work there?” I was asked. I am the kind of person eager to see and do more and to explore and so I said YES. I always wanted to grow taller, like the tallest tree in the forest, rising above all other trees. I wanted to see the sky, the stars, the moon, and everything else beyond my little local forest. I packed up and took the next flight to Alabama.

Art work by Prachurya Baruah

The tallest tree in the forest is always faced with dangers– lightning, cloudburst, thunderstorm. Just like people who are different from others are most likely to be attacked, the tree that is taller than the rest is the one most likely to be hit first. I realized this on the very first day of my arrival in the small town. I was received at the airport by a tall guy in a cowboy hat. His name was Patrick, and he greeted me warmly. He drove me to the company guest house. His truck intrigued me. The back of the truck was filled with all kinds of tools and machines. Driving with Patrick to the guest house, I only saw corn fields - miles and miles of corn, but not a single soul! We stopped to get groceries at a local store. Looking around, the only food I recognized was long grain rice and black beans! I would be surviving on rice, beans, and bread for the next few months.

The guest house was a Victorian house built in 1860 and was surrounded by tall oak trees. We toured the building and, I asked him, “Who else is staying here, I haven’t seen a single soul?” He told me that it was a long weekend, the office was closed, and no one else had arrived. “Call me anytime,” he said with a handshake and left. I was alone. As the night wore on, I started cooking and turned on the radio. I was listening to music when suddenly I heard a siren – “A tornado has been sighted, take shelter immediately”. The phone rang, it was Patrick “Go to the basement, get in the bathroom and stay inside.” There was an urgency in his voice that was amplified as the radio siren played again and again. “Drop everything, get into the basement, right now.” It was a fearful night. I trembled in the bathtub as the storm raged outside.

The next morning, I was relieved to see Patrick and his companion. I watched in amazement as they cut and cleared fallen tree branches from the driveway with a chainsaw. The sun rose bathing the house in a warm orange glow. Then I heard the ringing of church bells in the distance. It was a Sunday morning and people were gathering.  I heard prayer, laughter, and human voices. I was back in civilization. I saw a lot of cars but then suddenly traffic came to a standstill. Why? As I came near, I spotted a mother duck followed by dozens of ducklings. They were crossing the busy street while everyone on both sides of the road waited patiently. No one honked or tried to hurry the ducks; traffic resumed only after the last two of the ducklings waddled safely across the street. That night, I composed a letter to my mother – Mom I am writing from Birmingham Alabama, a place where Dr Martin Luther King began civil disobedience movement inspired by Gandhi. Gandhi taught love and compassion for every living being and today I witnessed how people cared for the smallest! Alabama is a sweet place.

Next morning, I woke up to a loud knock. It was Patrick, standing with a smalling man with a white shirt. His name was John, he was radiating positive vibes. Ushering them in, Patrick pointed to me and said excitedly – “This is the guy from the land of Gandhi”. John then explained to me that his grandfather worked in India as a Railway construction engineer. During that time, his grandfather met Mahatma Gandhi. John told me that he grew up listening to his grandfather’s tales about Gandhi. As we all sat at the kitchen table over a cup of tea, I heard this incredible story about John, his grandfather and Gandhi. John asked- “tell me about Gandhi”. His words, however, hit a raw nerve in me. When I grew up Gandhi was everywhere. There was a statue of Gandhi at the school entrance, every classroom was decorated with pictures of Gandhi, the library was filled with plaques of Gandhi, but we did not take the teaching of Gandhi to heart. I recall a time, when I was in high school, I was involved in a communal riot. We the majority group started attacking the minority group. I forgot Gandhi, I let bigotry take me over. The guilt that I carried all my life for participating in this hatred built up inside me. Recounting this story to John gave me a powerful sense of liberation from my guilt. I was free.

When I confined myself within my little forest, I was consumed by prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.  But when I grew taller and rose above all the other trees in the forest, I saw the other side. Friends, once upon a time, I lived in a place where a guy rescued a stranger from a tornado, where human traffic stopped so that little ducklings could reach safety, a place where I met a stranger who made me realize the true meaning of the teachings of Gandhi. It was my sweet home, Alabama.

My Toastmaster speech , a tribute to Gandhi on 30th January 2024 , the death anniversary


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