Keynote speech at University of Texas , Dallas 21th January 2023- Organized by D50 Toastmasters
When I gave my Toastmasters speech, “Same Boat Brother,” at the Story teller event in Austin, It was a great moment of pride for me. I felt humbled by the enormity and the significance of this major milestone. Reflecting on the event upon my return home, I was sent down memory lane. I was flooded with memories. Suddenly, I could see everything I’d gone through , every difficult circumstance, every hardship, every struggle. My speech was seven minutes long but the journey was much longer, beginning when I was in high school, Friends , it took thirty five long years to reach the milestone!
My beloved high school English teacher, Rohit Bezbarua
When I grew up , the person who had a profound influence on me was my beloved high school English teacher, Rohit Bezbaruah. A man of letters and a well-read person he used to regale us with the childhood stories of Abraham Lincoln , Mahatma Gandhi , and Isaac Newton as well as tales from the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. He had magic in his words and held us spellbound. Some of us became eloquent with a good command over the language because of him and later won many prizes during interschool debates and public speaking competitions. My teacher taught me many life lessons, lessons I still vividly remember.
When I got accepted into College for Computer Science and Engineering , I thought I was the luckiest. I felt that all of my life’s dreams and goals were progressing seamlessly and easily. Since I was a young child, I had dreamed of going to America and working for Bill Gates. But, things took a very unexpected turn when I first arrived at college. At my college, The Computer Science department was in its’ infancy, there were only two Computers in the entire college , books were few and far between, I felt stuck, I did not feel like I was getting anywhere, I asked myself - had I made a mistake in my career choice? As these questions echoed in my mind, questions with no clear answers, I found myself one day visiting my former teacher. It was during spring break. He was at his desk and smiled broadly when he saw me. He inquired about my study. I was telling him about the sad state of affairs of my college, lamenting not getting admission to a good Engineering college. My teacher was telling me the importance of having a positive outlook , finding the silver lining in all situations, even when they don’t go my way. As we were talking, the gathering thunderheads broke into a storm, the electricity flickered and went out leaving the room in total darkness. When my teacher found a candle , he lit it up with a match. Pointing to the illuminated candle, he began to recite a poem. His sonorous voice filled the entire room. It was so divine, I felt as if some higher presence had entered the room. Friends, allow me to recite this poem for you all in the original Hindi.
At the time, I was still too young to fully understand and appreciate. But it did not matter. He was singing about something so beautiful, it was so profound as if a pair of angles were with us in our classroom and made the (my doubts, fear, anxiety) walls dissolved away. Now, unless there are members of the audience who understand Hindi, perhaps you are all sitting at the edge of your seats curious about the meaning of this poem. This poem translated into English goes like this.
You cannot take your boat across the sea If you are afraid of the waves,
The one who tries Never fails.
Never run away from the battlefield of hard work,
You cannot get praise without working for it, the one who tries Never fails.
Friends, I left that room a changed man. Before that encounter, I was filled with doubt and fear. I didn’t believe I had made the right decision to pursue Computer Science. But, that day, I realized that if I work hard I have what it takes to shape my future and achieve whatever it might be that I set my mind to.
When I returned to Engineering college; I started waking up early so that I could access one of the two computers in the lab, I made friends with someone in a nearby university. I was able to borrow his library card to access Computer science books and journals, sometimes venturing twenty miles both ways by bicycle, but nothing could prevent me reaching my goal. Very soon I realized my dream , I landed in America, with a job at Microsoft with Bill Gates and then the best thing ever happened I joined Toastmasters!
Before joining Toastmasters, I had contemplated the purpose of my life. Up until this point, my purpose was little more than working a 9 to 5 job, paying bills, and surviving another day. I knew I had many gifts, skills and talents, and I wanted to share them with the world. I found my calling with Toastmasters. In 2019, I gave a speech at Highway to Excellence (HTE) Toastmaster, the Bedford, Texas, club I’d joined a few weeks before. My speech, “Same Boat Brother,” was about growing up in India—including the sweet childhood memories of walking to school with my best friend. And how, during a local community uprising, I unintentionally became part of a mob that threatened my friend and his family. And how, eventually, a song of brotherhood brought us back together. After the speech, I received a brown bag filled with handwritten notes of positive feedback. The compliments and appreciation boosted my morale tremendously, I began to gain a clarity on who I am, what I want and why I want it.
My first speech in Toastmasters eventually sent me on a higher journey. At HTE - I fortunately found a special person – Emily Murray. That evening, after the end of the meeting when we dispersed, I happened to meet her again in the parking lot and we had a long conversation. Emily introduced me to the “Toastmasters mentoring program” whereby an experienced member helps a new member by passing on his or her knowledge, insight, and wisdom. She agreed to be my mentor and thus we embarked on a journey which gradually molded me into a story teller. During the next six months, every weekend , we met at a common location – the library room , the YMCA building , the temple hall . I fondly recall those days - If the library was closed , we knocked on the YMCA , if the YMCA was closed we knocked on the door of the temple, we never missed a single day. During that time, I also came to know that Emily was facing major medical conditions. Despite these medical trials, Emily never quit on me. It is in the example set by her, where I have most profoundly learned the value of perseverance. Thus, I followed my mission relentlessly. It was a pursuit that was ceaseless, boundless, unending until I mastered the crafts of public speaking. Emily taught me how to animate my body and voice to express my emotions, how to leverage the techniques of hand gestures, how to lower or raise the voice to express the rising conflict in my speech and how to stir audience emotions with vocal variety. Towards the end of the mentoring program, Emily told me my speech had a universal message and one day asked if I would carry it to a larger audience. It was the defining moment in my life. Friends, I found the purpose of my life. No longer do I view myself simply as a 9 to 5 job earner, I know I am meant to do something meaningful with my life.
Thus began the next phase of my journey - reaching a larger audience outside of Toastmasters. Can I tell my story to one thousand , or ten thousand people ? A million , A billion? The Toastmasters mentoring program triggered something so fierce in me there was nothing impossible ! Friends, when you give yourself permission to dream big, let yourself feel excited and let that feeling spur you on, nothing can stop you; you will make these impossible dreams possible. The momentum propelled me to build an actionable roadmap and I began marching forward.
Firstly, I built a website for my Toastmasters speeches. I had an added advantage as I was able to incorporate the evaluations of my speeches submitted by fellow Toastmasters.
Some clubs like TNT Toastmasters, which I joined later, have an inhouse recording facility, and they even send you the recording of your speech. Thanks to TNT , I created a YouTube channel of my speeches.
Thirdly, I began publishing my speeches and stories to social media sites.
I even incorporated music, painting and art work in my Toastmasters speeches . The Dallas Fort Worth district toastmaster began to publish news about my stories in the monthly newsletter.
Once you start taking action , you’ll start seeing signs of progress, the more actions you take, the more visible you are to the outside world. Friends, I let myself be seen by the world !. The USA TODAY Network has a special program called the Storytellers Project which produces shows in 20 cities across the United States. The shows feature a diverse line-up of storytellers sharing true stories based on their personal lives. Authors, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and performers from across the country tell a true story that affirms the nation’s deeply held values of love and compassion, hope and perseverance, freedom and liberty. In the early part of 2021, I submitted my story Same Boat Brother. Each year, organizers hand-pick the best stories from hundreds of submissions, and I was delighted to receive the acceptance of my story by USA Today. Once I was accepted, they arranged coaching sessions where I learned new skills. The Storytellers is a live show designed for a diverse audience. As such, there is a fundamental difference with Toastmasters in how the story is organized. Usually, the Toastmasters speeches are focused on the audience - teaching or explaining something to the audience, inspiring them or calling the audience for action. But the Storyteller speeches are mostly about you, the individual. “Stories are not talks.”, the storytelling coaches explained to me the difference. Thus they recommended changes to my speech. During the coaching sessions, I had an intense conversation with a speaking coach who asked , “In your story, when you started shouting threatening the family of your friend, what happened to you?. I was reluctant but eventually I opened up, “The compassionate , comforting , caring me was suddenly overpowered by a beast – a beat of intolerance , indifference and ignorance.” This sentence was so vivid , so intense , so heartfelt I felt like I'd found a magic wand that let me get straight to the heart of my story. Friends, the storytellers helped me to unlock my true identity, I found my authentic voice, I breathed life into my speech.
The Storytellers event was scheduled for 20th April where I would be joined by four other Americans. I was excited , getting ready but fate had other plans. Due to the pandemic, the show was hosted virtually and my speech was recorded to be shown the next day. But there was a last-minute change which was not communicated to me clearly. On the day of the event as I was watching the show on Television with my family, I heard my name being called repeatedly – I suddenly realized it was a live show, I hurriedly reached my computer but it was too late, the show was over. I was devastated , my months of preparation came to naught. I blamed myself, I felt sorry for myself as endless questions went through my head : why did this happen to me ? why am I so unlucky , why is that , no matter how hard I try, I keep getting beaten down in my life?
Fortunately, my own clarity came out of the most miserable time of my life. One morning I was sitting in my garage alone when I noticed a little black ant as it struggled to carry grain up a slope on a wall. The wall was wet and slippery and the first attempt of the ant was a failure. The grain slipped from its hold and fell on the ground. Undaunted, the ant retraced its steps, picked up the grain. As this tiny creature started again on the arduous journey up the slippery wall I was recalling my high school English teacher and his poem.
The tiny ant carries a small grain in its mouth, Climbs up on the wall, slips and falls a hundred times,
The determination in the mind fills your body with courage, Then climbing up and falling down does not hurt,
Ultimately, its (the ant’s) efforts do not go waste, The one who tries Never fails.
Friends , as I recalled my teacher and his poem , I felt a sudden , profound shift in my life. I realized failures were gifts that would allow me to strive for a bigger purpose. Through these barriers, one could grow , learn , adapt and achieve. I again started writing Toastmasters speeches. However , little did I know I was on the verge of my biggest breakthrough.
At Austin Storyteller event , February 18th 2022
In the early part of 2022 , a reporter from Austin American-Statesman contacted me - – she had seen my previously recorded speech and asked me if I could participate in the next event to be held in Austin. Later, she wrote a story about me and some of my fellow storytellers. In February 2022, I gave my USA TODAY Storytellers speech to a boisterous sold-out crowd in Austin. I was speaking to a non-Toastmaster audience for the first time but my Toastmasters training, including eye contact, vocal variety, and body language, gave me the edge. My speech at the Storytellers event was covered by local and national media and was a great moment of pride for me. Along my way in this journey, I discovered the power that had been within me all along. If I can do it, you can, anybody can. Dear fellow Toastmasters and friends, don’t you agree with me?