Sunday, May 24, 2020

Lockdown 1.0

As most of India grappled with and navigated the first ever nationwide 21-day lockdown to battle Corona / Covid-19, some inspired souls sought to engage the minds of uneasy citizens, redirecting their thoughts and efforts to nobler causes. Some organized themselves as a taskforce to help citizens in need, especially seniors and stranded daily-wage labourers. Some others came together (virtually) to learn a new language or a new skill, as 21 days is ideal for forming a new habit. Others tried to move their offline sessions to an online and asynchronous format.

Within each group, there were several ebbs and flows of technologies, platforms and formats, each trend lasting only until the next disrupting piece of real/fake news/propaganda or dissenting voice was heard. To retain a semblance of their life BC (Before Corona), people willingly experimented and reorganized their lives, incorporating technology into all aspects of their social, academic and professional lives. Through this turmoil, WhatsApp continued to rule the roost as the platform that connected people, sent them away to other platforms for different things but they came back and stayed actively engaged within their mother group on WhatsApp.

One group of inspired souls I had the pleasure of connecting with were Bindu and Naresh, entirely by chance. A forward on a family WhatsApp group sent me off to another WhatsApp group where a bunch of socially conscious people conducted periodic sessions to sensitize the generally unaware public to the needs of deaf and visually impaired individuals. Ironically, these were eye-opening for many, including yours truly.

Amidst the expected chaos of a generic WhatsApp group, a post about recording NCERT textbooks for visually impaired students caught my eye. I signed up instantly. That I could help someone build their career just by using my voice to record a few pages, from the comfort of my home, at a time of my choosing, using things I already had, made for a strong argument for it. What a capital idea! Why wasn't it done before? I admired the people who were making this happen now.

For 1.5 weeks, I communicated with a couple of volunteers entirely on WhatsApp. They sent me a few pages as a PDF, I recorded and sent back my recorded file and waited for their feedback or the next assignment. Rinse and repeat, daily.

I thought recording would be easy, but discovered a few unexpected hurdles. The birds around my house, unable to contain their surprise and excitement at having the streets entirely to themselves, called out loudly all day long. Were these birds here earlier? Did they call out just as loudly? How noisy is the sound of a regular scooter passing by my house! I gained a new-found appreciation for the sensitivity of my phone's mic. Since there were fewer sources of noise at night, I was forced to record by night only.

As I listened to my recording, my own voice seemed strange and unfamiliar. How loud are the sounds produced by the ceiling fan and my mindless fidgeting! Also, why am I breathing so heavily? I recorded again. This time breath control was foremost on my mind, also ensured the fan was off and consciously didn't fidget. Better! Still, the constant distant hum of the UPS and the chatter of insects that came alive at night were unavoidable. Can this noise be removed, post recording? I discovered there were free Android apps that did a fantastic job. Noise Remover instantly became my new favorite app. Audacity seemed daunting with it innumerable features, though surprisingly it's free too. 

Found it hard to digest that for 3+ years @ Spotify, all day long I obsessed over recommending audio files to users, never giving a thought to how they were produced. And now, months after leaving Spotify, I was tripping on the smallest of things while learning how to record and create reasonably decent audio files from home. While my family and friends complained about staying put in one place all day, the unanticipated sudden restriction on their freedom, the lack of this and that, plotted ways to get around the lockdown rules, turned into neighbourhood vigilantes who monitored the movements of everyone on their street and adopted an extreme position of either blaming Modi incessantly or following his requests to the word, all I could think about were ways to improve the quality of my recordings. I listened to several podcasts making mental notes of things the hosts and guests did well, analyzing what differentiated the good from the mediocre. Was glad I was too preoccupied to partake of the mindless negativity flooding social media, newspapers and TV channels.

The NCERT textbooks recording project soon came to a successful end. Undoubtedly, there were many equally enthusiastic volunteers recording independently.  I was impressed with the speed of completion. What I thought would take months, was done in weeks. This spoke volumes about the dedication of the volunteers. I became eager to engage more with such determined folks. 

Next came a post requesting volunteers to help coordinate new projects. Lockdown 1.0 was ending in a few days, all of India expected an extension and awaited the official announcement by Modi. In this backdrop, I certainly had the time and energy to dedicate more of my efforts towards helping these visually impaired students. I had heard Bindu speak just once about her NGO and the motivation for doing this now over a conference call. It was a bit uncharacteristic of me to place so much trust in folks I had never seen, even in pictures. And now I was committing to doing more than send my own recordings. The NCERT recording experience had given me the confidence about the competence of the folks leading these efforts. They seemed to be solving a genuine problem, harnessing the sudden upsurge of volunteers thanks to the lockdown. I signed up as a coordinator, not knowing what would be recorded next.

The ensuing experience completely blew me away!

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