8 June 2019

The ‘90s version of Tinder?

Couple of weeks back, my old friend and colleague Michiko was in town. Our schedules were a little tight but we decided to give it a shot anyways. Turns out, we were able to make it work out. Which was lucky for me because meeting Michiko means you are bound to pick up some great words of wisdom.

Over some wine we caught up on our old days of working together and some of our old colleagues. Michiko is a guru when it comes to Data and Analytics. She has done the whole gamut of Data Analytics – from developing models to selling the products. Now she is in management consulting – helping out companies with their strategy and operations in Data Analytics.

A memorable moment during our discussions was when I asked her about her take on where Data and Analytics has reached now – full 12 years after we had worked together in this area. “You see, Rajib, Analytics is sexy. Everybody talks about Analytics. Data is not getting enough focus because it is not that sexy. In fact, governance is the most ignored area of data – because it is not as shiny as Analytics”.

I knew that her background was in music. I did not realize that she plays both the piano and viola. Given that she has achieved so much in life, I asked her:
“Looking back on all your achievements, which one are you most proud of?”
“I am not allowed to be proud of anything”
“Meaning?”, I asked confused.
“Remember where I am from?”
“Japan, right?”
“Yes. In our culture we cannot be proud. It is considered uncouth to be proud”.

That was one of the most unique answers to a fairly common question that I ask people.

“Ok. Then tell me what work from your past – especially, when we worked together – do you remember the most?”, I pressed on.
“Nobody remembers the work, Rajib. You will remember the people.”
Truer words have not been spoken!!!

The funny part of our conversation came around when I asked her how she had met her husband. Believe it or not, they met in a chat room! Or as she put it – “The ’90s version of online dating!”

Michiko, it was simply outstanding to meet you. It was too short though. Let’s plan to have a longer meeting soon.

3 June 2019

Epitome of a gentleman

“Charles, you will absolutely not remember me. My name is Rajib. You used to be the librarian in COSL. I worked in COSL SEEPZ premises for about a year”.
“How do you remember me?”
“Well, if I were to name three of the kindest persons I have ever met in my life or perhaps ever will – you will be way up there in that list”
The way he had parried away my answer, I figured I was not the first one to bring it up.

Way back when, I had worked in COSL’s SEEPZ premises. First for a two month internship in 1990 and then for a job 1991-1992. During the summer internship, I was asked by my boss – Sesh was his name – to work on an Expert Systems software COSL had bought. He gave me the specific project he wanted me to do – resume management application for HR. The problem was that the more I tried the software, the more I realized it was anything but an expert system. Moreover, the HR requirements for resume match were fairly standard and required less of expert systems and more of deterministic matches with a some level of forgiveness.

Eventually, I gave up and decided to ignore Sesh’s advise to not worry about the project and learn more about expert systems and the application. I wanted to focus on the problem. So, I went to the library the company had and started looking up every book that I could lay my hands on.

Presently, a soft spoken gentleman that I had seen at the entrance – presumably the librarian – walked up to me. With a tie on (we all had to wear ties in that hot, sultry summer weather in Bombay) and his full sleeves wrapped up all they way to the elbow, he asked me if I was looking for something. I told him about my challenge.

“Have you looked at dBase4”?
I had no idea what it was. So, he helped me get a thick book. And arranged for a floppy disk with the software loaded.

Long story short, I studied up the whole dang thing and built something before my internship was over. I was fairly satisfied with the system. But a year later when I joined the company for a full time job, I realized that nobody ever used it!!! Not that I cared. They gave me a job, right?

How I managed to sit face to face with Charles about three decades later is a story unto itself. About a couple of years back, I had gone to Pune to meet an old teacher of mine from school days. Sri Ganesh – who was a senior of mine in COSL, realized that and offered to meet me at a hotel by Bombay airport before I could fly out to USA. That evening, we were talking of old colleagues and Charles’ name came up. He even got me his phone number.

Once I went back to US, I called him up and had the conversation I referred to earlier.

A couple of years later, last Sunday in fact, I tried Charles thru WhatsApp, phone call and email before I left Kolkata. I was going to be in Bombay for a few hours and I wanted to see if he might have time. Only late in the evening he responded saying he will come and meet me. That was awfully kind of him.

And that is the way I remember him. Nothing has changed about him. The ever soft spoken, humble to a fault, Charles was recognizable both by his looks and his behavior across those three decades like nothing has changed.

There was in interesting story, as it turns out, how he had pointed me to dBase4. Charles studied electronics but did not like it. He took his dad’s advise and took up library management. That afforded him to read many books and he liked databases. He even built a system using database systems those days. And that is what made him realize what I was looking for was a good database management system that particular afternoon in 1990.

Charles, you are one of a kind. Your gentlemanliness, your kindness and your humility makes you a unique person. May your tribe increase!!

3 June 2019

My ever smiling dorm mate!!

Last time I was in Bombay and had published a post on meeting my friend from MBA days – Somshekhar Baksi, I got a message from another friend – Anish Gupta if we could meet. Unfortunately for me, I had run out of time but I had promised him that the next time I was in Bombay, I would be sure to meet him.

Sunday was the day to keep that promise. I met Anish for the first time after 1991 Feb. We were in the same dorm. My recollection of him was that of a constantly smiling person, very soft spoken and very well-kempt hair. And he always used to carry a handkerchief in his trousers’ left pocket!!

We had similar interests in life and in fact followed similar career paths initially – technology in financial services sector – and then our paths diverged. He stayed on with the financial sector to become an expert and moved to Singapore before moving back to India. I went off to the USA and have jumped industries every time I changed jobs – never letting anything close to something that can be considered an expertise get anywhere near me.

Thanks to the effort Anish put negotiating traffic in Bombay, I was finally able to see him in my hotel after nearly three decades. We chatted for the better part of three hours. Interestingly, most of it was focused on the longer view of life – what MBA taught us and did not, how we figure out what are the important things in life and how do we balance our work, family and ourselves. I even got him interested in my version of the Level 10 Life that I follow to set and achieve life goals.

It was great to see that the constant smile on his face has not left Anish. More importantly, his genuine curiosity about everything has remained intact from those days of D-13 in IIM Ahmedabad. That is the thing I have always admired about him. And still do.

2 June 2019

I might have to learn singing after this. If I remember to, that is!!

“Where did we meet last?”, I asked
“Carbondale, Illinois, right?”
“Yeah – that was three years back. Do you remember where we met before that?”
“Was it not Dubai a few years before that?”
“Indeed. I guess it was high time we met in Kolkata then – the city where we met each other for the first time – let’s see … about 33 years back?”

With that we settled down in the lounge of Westin hotel in Kolkata. It was an irony that I knew so many of the students from my batch in Durgapur so well but never knew Piyali. There is a funny story about how we met for the first time on a hot summer evening in Kolkata in 1986. It somehow involved two medical colleges, a Kathak dance class and she being majorly disappointed in me. I will let her elaborate on that story.

Over the years though, she certainly has become somebody I enjoy talking to and learn from. She has a streak of independence in her thinking that has led her to try out so many different things in life. Often buckling the social norms. What is most endearing about her is that in spite of having strong beliefs, she never goes around telling people how they should be living their lives. But if you get her to talk, there are a lot of pearls of wisdom you can pick up.

“So, talk to me about your singing. You had mentioned that during our last two conversations. How difficult was it for you to pick up from where you left it in your young adult days?”

Well, that was when I learnt that Piyali has never learnt singing before. When she told me that she was going to learn singing, I assumed, like her dancing, she had to give it up once her medical studies and life took over. What I found out was that she had to give up dancing due to an injury. After crossing 50, she decided to do something she always wanted to – singing – but never got a chance. Apparently, she had asked many people to teach her but nobody had taken her seriously till she got a break while waiting for a ride. Story for another day.

“So, what are you trying to achieve?”
“I just want to learn music. I do not believe I want to ever give performances. I want to train my ears enough that I can listen to a piece of music and detect what ‘raaga’ it is.

“What have you learnt about yourself thru this journey so far?”
“There is medical research that suggests that music can postpone the onset of Alzheimers. I can see in myself that my short term memory has dramatically improved in the short one and a half years of learning music”
“Yes. I was forgetful enough that I often used to forget brand names of medicine that I would prescribe. I would remember the chemical compound – but not the brand names. Now I have no problems!”
“That is really interesting”

From her taking up kettle balls to learning how to do bonsai to her jet-setting lifestyle from Las Vegas to Dubai to Kolkata, it is very difficult to keep up with my friend. But the short durations that I get once every three to five years when we meet face to face are always eye opening to me.

“Looking back on your life, what would you like to be on your tombstone?”
Thinking for a few minutes, she said “That I found happiness in the small things”

I never thought about it that way – but that absolutely describes you, Piyali. Over the years, I got to know of some of the challenges you had faced. But I cannot recollect even on one occasion where you were negative about anything or even complained a wee bit. Which is fairly unique in today’s world. Especially in India, where everybody seems to focus on how things are getting worse from day to day, you are a refreshing oasis who reminds us how beautiful life is.

Can’t wait for our next meeting.

1 June 2019

The downside of not having a stage rehearsal

“Chintey paarchhis?” was the message that came to me along with a Facebook Friend request. I had no doubt in my mind – “Sontu-da to?”. Apparently, it took him by a little surprise that I had readily recognized him. Which was understandable. We lived in the same neighborhood for three years only and even then since he was three years senior, we did not have as many interactions as the other kids who were nearer my age.

I remember meeting him for the first time during the winter of 79-80 when we moved to a new neighborhood. The last time I saw him was around the winter of 83-84. I had already left home for a residential school and then Sontu-da’s family moved out of our neighborhood. Day before yesterday, my brother and I pulled up in front of his house in Citi Center, Durgapur and was able to see him and talk to him – more than 35 years after we had seen each other last.

We went thru some of our old memories. I recollect Sontu-da teaching me 2 different card tricks the very first day I met him. In fact, I remember playing a lot of cards with him and the other kids in our neighborhood when it got too hot to go outside and play in the field.

But the most remarkable memory we both had – and shared a common laugh together was something that had happened in the summer of 1980. In those days, if you were to land in Durgapur unsuspectingly around second week of May, you were bound to see many a neighborhood putting up a make shift stage in the evening – usually in some open space, but sometimes bang in the middle of the street. That was your first clue that the season was upon us for Bengalis to get our annual urge to display our hidden histrionic, musical and poetry reading talents. The ostensible reason was celebrating Rabindranath’s birthday – “Rabindra Jayanti”, as we would say.

Sontu-da had taken upon himself that year to get some of us kids – very wet behind our ears when it came to acting – to act out a play written by Rabindranath Tagore. “Chhatrer Porikkha” (The Student’s Test), if my memory serves me right. Our practice sessions were a riot of misread statements, jumbled up words and sometimes entering the scene way too early on a miscue. It did not exactly help that half the kids in my neighborhood those days used to stammer with different degrees. But give it to us for putting up a spirited fight.

Now, in that particular play, I was given the lead role – that of the student. Yes, you can safely guess from there that none of the kids were going to have a bright future in acting later. Be that as it may, my purpose was to try and get rid of my teacher by purposely giving ridiculous answers when he would ask me questions in front of my dad who was paying a visit to check on my progress. I distinctly remember a question where the teacher was going to ask me something like – “If a palm tree grew in height by two feet everyday how tall would it be at the end of ten days” – or something like that. My impish answer would be – “depends upon if the tree was growing straight or in a crooked fashion”. You get the gist of it.

Well, at the end of a few weeks, I think Sontu-da had gotten the motley crowd to a modicum of decent performance. We were brimming with a fair amount of confidence a couple of days earlier when we realized that nobody needed a cue or a prop to remember their words.

The actual performance on the stage was a whole different ballgame though.

To understand that, you have to realize that we never had any dress rehearsal or stage rehearsal. For one thing, the stage was going to be set up only a few hours before the actual show. Setting a stage up essentially meant going around house to house asking our neighbors to lend us a cot. Once we had gathered about four of them, we would put them together and then cover them with some kind of borrowed cloth covers. This was out in the open. So, you were not going to do any such thing till about a few hours before the show. Otherwise we would need somebody to volunteer to be at the makeshift stage to prevent those cloth covers or cots getting spirited away. Sitting out in that sweltering peak mid-May heat in Bengal would scurry off many a brave soul. We were mere kids then. We needed rest before our performance, moreover!

Net, net – no stage rehearsal.

Trust me, there are details of acting that you completely miss when you skip a stage rehearsal. And this is not counting those cases when the rickety cots were of uneven heights or some of those cloth covers on the cots got themselves entangled. You can get caught on the wrong foot on many other snafus.

Case in point: When I started giving all sorts of ridiculous answers to the questions from my teacher – none other than my next door neighbor Debasish – his part of the acting involved getting frustrated, scratching his head and pacing up and down. And try the next question.

So far so good. Now, let me remind you again, we were young kids trying to put up a public performance with very limited access to means. We needed to dress up Debasish as an elderly, respectable teacher. How do you make somebody look elderly? Sure – you dump nearly a bottle of talcum powder on his thick headful of hair.

The fun really started in a few minutes. The audience – not exactly holding us to high standards – seemed to have settled down and was getting into the act. I had gotten over my initial stage jitters and was fluently belting out those crazy answers that I had committed to memory. Debasish, with equal verve started pacing up and down the stage showing the required amount of impatience. And commenced to profusely scratch his head.

Yes. One of the important lessons we all learnt in our short career of acting that evening is that when you have a head full of talcum powder, you are well advised to stay away from profusely scratching your head. Powder starts flying out of your head and you look like a walking and talking chimney. Worse, you don’t see it yourself. You just see your co-actors desperately trying to hold heir laughter. The audience? Not so much. You think you are doing something wrong. Which means you get panicky and that scratching increases in its intensity considerably. Leading to you know what….

The not-so-virtuous cycle unfortunately continued till Debasish literally ran out of talcum powder on his head. At which point we all picked ourselves up from the stage and finished off the play with all sorts of jumbled lines.

Epilogue: Speaking of profusely scratching, we scratched off acting as a career next morning during our post-play get together.

Ah! Those simple times! Those really good times. Wish they would come back even if for a fleeting moment…

Anyways, it was great seeing you Sontu-da and remembering those times!

31 May 2019

The car whiz-kid

One of the beliefs I have is that the longest lasting effect most of us will leave in this world is how we spend time with and influence kids. The theory being they will outlast us by about three to four decades and 99.99% of human beings will have no real remnants of what they have done three to four decades after they are gone.

My true reckoning came one particular day on my way from Durgapur (visiting my in laws) back to Kalyani (where my parents live). I remember, we were approaching Panagarh when I got a call from Baisakhi (my friend from school years) to mention that her son regretted that he did not get a chance to high five me before I left.

That is when I realized that my seemingly meaningless meetings might have a whole different meaning to other folks (especially kids).

Therefore, in spite of knowing that Baisakhi would not be at home this time, it was important for me that I go check in on her son – Utsab. The conversations with him flowed naturally and the lucidity of the same were derived from nothing other than the fact there was pure intellectual curiosity without any expectations from either side. In fact almost all my discussions with him were had with me lying down on his bed – which he had just gotten out of and was still unmade.

He was painfully aware that his mom was going to take him to task for not making his bed before I showed up. I let him know there are many more things important in life than making our beds. For example, cars. This kid has more knowledge of cars around the world than I know. Once he realized we are a Lexus family, he could tell me exactly which year Lexus introduced the “grille”!!

It was a short time that we spent together. But the fact that he had let his mom know that he was waiting for me the whole morning is what made my day. Somewhere, somehow, either I have done something right or I have fooled somebody well. For the time, I will choose to believe the former!

31 May 2019

One of my early sources of love for math…

Anup Nandi, Uday Bhanu Roy, Dr. A.N. Roychowdhury… I can name the trio of my teachers that got me started on an insatiable journey to learn about math (and logic in general). If I could add private teachers, I would add Swarupananda Karmakar to that list.

Lately, Dr. Roychowdhury and I have had some late night (for me) discussions on his first love – Physics. In fact, most of our discussions revolve around the challenges of the grand unification theory (of the four core forces in this universe).

Thanks to Somshekhar Bakshi, I was able to refer Dr. Roychowdhury to two books that has intrigued me – one on Physics and one on Maths. Yesterday, I was able to visit him in his house to discuss those books!

Dr. Mukherjee, in so many ways is the person I always wanted to be – but know will never be – quiet, soft-spoken and every word worth measured in its weight in gold.

He and I have other connections too! His daughter – Mousumi – is somebody I went to school with from first grade (although I have a lurking suspicion that she does not want to admit to it :-). My brother Chiradeep and his wife Chaitali were also students of Dr. Roychowdhury!!

I have to admit that seeing Kakima (Mrs. Roychowdhury) having knee issues was a little perturbing. I always remember her as the person who welcomed me with a smile every time I showed up at Mousumi’s house and insisted that I had tea and some snacks before I left.

Dr. Roychowdhury and I have opened up another area of common interest – evolution! Especially, how did homo sapiens’ brains evolve where we are today?

I am looking forward to a few more late night discussions on that topic and learning from him. What is remarkable is that he has so many things to teach me on so many topics. It is like nothing has changed in four decades!!

17 May 2019

If not for the star button in that elevator panel…

I dropped my bags in the office in San Francisco where I was to have some meetings and rushed out to find a Fed Ex drop location to send Natasha some paperwork. At the elevator bank, after pressing “1” on the panel, I waited patiently for the elevator to show up. The elevator panel was pretty interesting. It looked almost like a big telephone keypad – complete with a “*” sign and a “#” sign! There was a large printed notice above it saying “Press 1 to go to the ground floor”. Which, I had duly followed.

A second before the elevator showed up, a young gentleman arrived in the bank and then proceeded to press the * button. The elevator showed up and soon I realized that we two were the only ones taking the ride.

“Which floor are you going to?”, I asked without any other fair warning to the gentleman.
“Ground floor”.
Now that piqued my interest. Why did he not follow instructions?
“Why did you press the * key?”
“That takes you to the ground floor”
“But there is a clear sign there saying you are supposed to press 1”
“Yeah, I just try to put some variations in life”

That was an interesting take!!

“I am Rajib, by the way”.
“From Riverside?”
“Yes. And you are….?”
“Lakshay. People call me Lucky”
“What is your full name?”
“Lakshay Gilja”
“Where is that last name from?”
“Punjab, India”.

I have to admit that for somebody who should know most last names from India, I had not heard that one before.

We were enjoying the conversation – so he decided to accompany me to the FedEx stop and I offered to walk with him to grab his lunch and then we would both walk back to office.

“So, where did you grow up?” (No points for guessing that I was trying to find some common connections)
“Atlanta area”.
“Really? Where in Atlanta?”
“Alpharetta area.”
“Where in Alpharetta?”

He looked funny at me – “Do you know Alpharetta?”
“Yeah, I have some working knowledge”
“Milton area”
“Where in Milton?”

He was not sure how to answer. So, I asked “Which road?”
“It is called New Providence”
“How far from that funky intersection with Birmingham Hwy?”
“Well, they have made a round about there now. WAIT A MINUTE. How do you know that much detail?”
“You are not going to believe this – but I live a stone’s throw away from that intersection”
“No way. So do my parents”.
“I figured!”.
“This is unbelievable”

There is some truth to that. I live in a very rural setting – dirt road, water from well, septic tank, dense forests, internet over phone line and all that. You are more likely to know a horse from around my area than any human beings!! It was just incredible luck that I had run into a young person in an elevator in down town San Francisco from my area.

“So, you went to Milton High?”
“Yes, I did!”
“Well, then I have another surprise for you.”
“What?” Lucky was still trying to get over the fact that I was not trying to pull wool over his eyes. He was even more intrigued that our motorbike team rides every weekend right in front of his dad’s place.
“Wait. I need to introduce you to somebody”

Eventually, we went back to the office. Took Lucky straight to the room where I had dropped my bag. Graham – my friend and the CFO of our company – was there too giving finishing touches to our Board presentation.

“Graham, this is Lucky. Lucky, this is Graham”.
A few pleasantries later….
“Graham, you remember that high school your wife Emily went to?”
“Milton High. Why?”
“Well, Lucky went to the same high school”
“No Way!”
“Yes Way”

You can only imagine the confusion Lucky was going thru. I explained to him – “See Lucky, a few months back, I was in Atlanta and Graham was in Philadelphia. I was trying to convince him to join a company in Chicago that was bought by your firm in San Francisco. During that conversation, I had found out that his wife went to – of all possible places in this country – to the high school down the road from me. Turns out that is where you went too!!”

This was certainly getting overwhelming for Lucky. I would not blame him. Again, we live in a very rural setting.

“So, which year did your wife go to Milton High?”
Turns out she was a couple of years senior to Lucky.
Then Graham had a thought – “Do you know Ben Jackson”?
“You mean this guy?” – Lucky asked after fishing out his phone from his pocket and pulling up a picture on Facebook.
“Yes. That is my brother in law!”
“He is my classmate, for crying out loud!!!”

The circle was complete, by now.
Here was a guy who lived in Philly that moved to Chicago to join the company I was joining from Alanta – and we were put in touch by the investor firm in San Francisco – realizing that I had run into his brother-in-law’s classmate in high school in the elevator!

All because of that * sign!!

As they say…. when the stars align….. 🙂

16 May 2019

Revisiting an old friend

It was nearly one and a half years back, I had met Rachel. I remember being very hungry after some office meetings and finding the one place nearby that was still open. Except, their kitchen was closed. But Rachel – who was working at the bar – was able to go inside and arrange for some onion rings and fries. Anand, remember?

I also remember about the advise she had for my daughters – “do not marry early” and her life aspirations about being a psychiatrist.

Last week, during my trip to Wisconsin, found out where she works now and then was able to catch up with her. She remains as energetic and reflective on life as ever. I think her aspiration to be a psychiatrist has worn off a bit – given how much fun she is having in her job now. Which is a pity – in my current job, we hire psychiatrists!!

This time, our topic was discussion was about bringing up kids. And also about her cousin that I found on Facebook (because she left a comment on my previous post) who is married to a Bengali!!! Further, found out that her boy friend is into Honda motorbikes like me!!

It was good seeing you again Rachel !