18 August 2017

Starting new intersection points … the security guard

Any travel for me is not always about re-connecting with old connections. Sometimes it is about making new connections too! All intersection points have to start somewhere…

I was seeing off my brother at the ITC Sonar hotel in Kolkata where I was going to stay for the night to catch a very early morning flight. After he left, I was walking back the steps when a familiar face smiled at me. I smiled back like every time. I have seen this security guard / usherer for as long as I can remember in this hotel.

Unlike this time, I stopped and chatted with him and got to know about this background. Mr. Prabir is her name. He has been working in the same hotel as a security person / usherer for over two decades. What I did not realize is that before this, he was in the army for another two decades. And for family reasons, he had to find alternate jobs (to stay close to his family).

Obviously he got busy with other guests – but I am glad I spent ten minutes getting to know him. Next trip onwards, I hope to get to know him as a person even more..

18 August 2017

Devlina. After over a quarter of century. Now Dr. Devlina!!

Back in MBA days, we had a fairly close knit team. We used to move around together – Devlina, Jyotsna, Srimathi (who we lost to cancer), T Srini and myself. Devlina was undoubtedly the sane, logical thinking, most caring person. After finishing up MBA, I remember taking a train to this city called Rourkela and showed up to meet her parents and brother.

I had some great time there. Her brother – Jayanta-da – taught me how to speak in sign language. I was fascinated by how her mother had dedicated her time and life to improve the lot of people born with inability to talk or hear (she had opened up a school there). All in all, I came away very impressed with the Mukherjee family.

And I think that was the last time I had seen Devlina.

On her request, I was in IIT-K for a guest lecture in their management school yesterday. I will let the students decide what they thought of the talk but it was just thrilling to see Devlina again. She has remained just the same way. Looks the same, the same broad smile, the same motherly and caring instinct. It was like the 26 years in between never happened.

What is fascinating about Devlina’s background is her variety of experience in career. She has worked in two different countries (India and US), made the uncommon switch from Corporate life to Academic life and picked up a few additional degrees in between. Technically, she is Dr. Devlina to me 🙂

For a guy like me who has been contemplating on how to give back to Academia, the meeting with Devlina was very timely and eye opening. I was able to pick up quite a few pointers from her. In fact, you can see in this picture how the student was all rapt attention to the words of wisdom from the professor! Errr…. make that Dr. Professor 🙂 🙂

18 August 2017

Cells do what?

Biology and I have always had an interesting relationship. I had, and continue to have, great curiosity to learn how our body works. In fact, even today, I will pick up a book that explains how our brain works, how our various body parts evolved over time and am usually more than sufficiently skeptical of easy explanations – as an example – food fads.

It was the exam time that I used to dread. It appeared to me that I had to learn everything by rote. I could not logically deduce anything (you know, like in math). And I was not good at remembering stuff. That had to do with studies. Certainly studies that had to do with the red Biology book written by one Katyal and one Ali.

It was sometime in 1979, I believe. Our Biology teacher – Mrs. Pandey had just started with the first chapter. And it was about the most simplest form of animals – single cells, that she was explaining. Eventually, she went to the topic of how cells reproduce and create more of themselves. Her words have been indelibly marked in my memory. “Cells multiply by dividing”. I get it that most folks with rudimentary knowledge of biology will know what she was talking about.

But to a logical thinking, math puzzle oriented 12-year old, that was a “Whoa!! Back up, Back up” moment. What do you mean you multiply by dividing? That gives a lie to my most favorite subject those days – maths.

I do not believe I ever recovered from that shock. Dropped biology after tenth grade unceremoniously crashing any dreams my parents might have had that I would grow up to be a doctor someday.

But I liked my teacher. In fact, I used to look forward to her new lessons – to learn some new thing. However as I said, you could not get me to read it the second time to prepare for exams.

First time I visited Mrs. Pandey at her residence was in 1980. She had asked me to prepare some charts for her for a project she was doing. I remember having done them with great care and then cycled up to her house in Benachity. As an aside, that day, I had a great intersection point – I had run into my classmate Jayita from a previous school in the same building that Mrs. Pandey lived in.

The next time I visited her was again in the same house. This time it was 1983 and I had finished my tenth grade and was going to move to a different school and city. I had gone to pay my regards to her.

And then for the third time, I saw her in her house yesterday! Nearly 1000 km away from the prior house I had visited. In Lucknow! I was in Kanpur to give a guest lecture in IIT. About 2 hours of drive away from where she lives. Made the trek up and down to get a chance to see her and thank her for all her lessons.

The additional attraction was getting to see her son Vikram, who was also a classmate of mine. We were never in the same section (home room) but certainly knew of each other very well. There are those annual birthday calls too!!

While it was a short stay, it was memorable to see Biology Miss (that is how we called her then) and Vikram!! It was heartening to see Mrs. Pandey in great spirits, sporting that incredible smile and in good health. I guess those cells did a great job in multiplying. Or was it dividing?

Ah! I forget!

16 August 2017

Dorothy Miss!

I was in a tight schedule yesterday. I had to go visit my inlaws in Durgapur but unlike every other time, I was not going to spend the night there. In fact, I had to come back by 7PM so my brother would have the option to go back to Kolkata if my nephew’s fever resurrected. The plan was to meet my inlaws, take them out for lunch, drop them back at their place and then head back to my dad’s place.

Fortunately for us, the roads were very clear. It being India’s Independence Day, all establishments and many shops were closed. A few random showers here and there thinned out the herd of pedestrians, motorcyclists, stray dogs, goats and chickens from the road. If any one of them were contemplating on stepping back into the roads, the constant honking of my brother surely made them think otherwise 🙂

That opened up the possibility of creating one more “intersection point”. One phone call to Pratap Bara in Kolkata and after taking a few wrong turns here and there, we showed up in front of Mrs. Benedict’s house. She was my fifth grade science teacher. We all called her “Dorothy Miss”.

Science was my favorite subject. So, obviously I used to look forward to her classes. But most interesting to me were the experiments she used to demonstrate to prove some scientific principles and all that. That was 1977.

And this is 2017.

Sir Lawrence, her husband, was also in our school but was never my teacher (other than a couple of weeks of substitute teaching when my seventh grade class teacher – Mrs. Srinivasan was out for some reason that I cannot recollect now).

I had a great time talking to Sir and Miss. (which is how we addressed our teachers in primary and middle schools).

I was delighted to meet their younger daughter – Shalini. She is a confirmed backpacker like my other friend Shirdhar. She has backpacked thru some beautiful parts of the world. There were some amazing stories yesterday!! Did I mention that I also got to taste some wines from the different places she has been to? !!

I am thinking I should regularly check up on Sir and Miss. Especially after Shalini’s trips. No vested interest, I assure you 🙂

15 August 2017

That is one “driven” driver…

“O tumi?” (You again?), I remarked as I got into the car my brother in law had arranged for me to go visit Jagannath-da and Santo-da (see previous post). The driver too immediately recognized me. I forget where – but this young driver – Kishore is his name – had chauffeured me around once before. I remember him as a very driven person. And very inquisitive. He had a lot of questions for me about America and how to establish oneself in life.

This time was no different! As he drove me to my village, we had some very interesting conversations.

“Ami America jaabo” (I want to go to America)
“Besh to” (Sounds good)
“Passport banatey diyechhi” (I am getting my passport made)
“Very good”
“Aar ki kortey hobey?” So, he wanted to know what else he needed to do to go to America.
“Visa laagbey” (You will need a visa)
“Visa? Seta kothay paabo?” (Where can I get a visa?)

So, I patiently explained how immigration works. I explained how he has to go the American Consulate in Kolkata and make a case why America needs him. I explained how if people have skills that we lack in America, they have a good chance of getting to America.

“Ami to gaari chaalatey paari”. (I can drive cars).
I gently broke it to him that there are many people driving cars in America and that may not be enough skill to impress the person at the consulate.

He became very thoughtful after that. In fact, I don’t think he asked me too many questions after that. I was feeling a little bad that I might have unnecessarily stymied a young person’s ambitions.

Soon, we pulled into our village and I got lost in my conversations with Jagannath-da and Santo-da.

On my way back, I was on an emotional high after my intersection points. Kishore suddenly asked me “Apnader okhaney aloor chop paoa jaay?”. He wanted to know if we get “aloor chop” in America.

Now, to the uninitiated, let me explain that “aloor chop” is a dietitian’s worst nightmare come true. And as such nightmares always tend to be – heavenly delicious to taste. Essentially, it is potato fritters – that is a specialty of my state in India – West Bengal. You get them in road side stalls. Roughly speaking, it is mashed potatoes (mashed with a lot more ingredients – but hot chilli peppers is one of them) that is then rolled by hand into small circular shapes, dipped in batter and then fried in a large container of oil that has clearly seen better days 🙂 ). And then sprinkled with “beet noon” (rock salt).

To die for. And then die from.

But I have never found this anywhere else in India or in the world, for that matter. And I have complained to Sharmila in the past about it.

“Aloor chop kintu paoa jaay na okhaney”. I admitted to Kishore that we do not get “aloor chop” in America.

I was thinking that he will remark that even in America, you do not get everything then… “Dekhun taaholey America-teo so kichhu paoa jaay na”.

He completely took my surprise when he asked “Ami jodi aloor chop banano sikhey niy, amaakey visa debey? Okhaney to eta keu banaatey paarey na”.

I had to laugh out very loud when I realized his angle. My God! He wanted to know if he learnt how to make “aloor chop”, would that skill be unique enough for him to go to America (since he figured nobody can make “aloor chop” in America).

I let him know that I do not about that but with his level of drive and focus in life, one of these days he is going to land up in America, for sure.

It made me think how focused this young gentleman is to improve his lot.

Which made me also wonder – am I still as focused to improve myself and my lot? And others’ lots? Am I still hungry enough?

15 August 2017

Two very special people from nearly five decades back

Last year, one Saturday evening, sitting by myself around midnight, I was reflecting on my life and the various people who helped me thru that journey. Somehow, my mind went back to Jagannath-da who I had almost forgotten.

I was born a farmer’s son. My dad used to till land till he got a break and got a job in a steel plant that was getting constructed about 100 kilometers away from our village. During those very very early days of my life – a life comprising of a hut made of dirt, roof made of straw, ablutions in ponds, a lot of playing in dirt roads and such rural facets – Jagannath-da and his brother Santo-da were our heroes.

They both worked with my dad and his brother (my uncle) in the land that we had growing rice and potatoes. And they worked on a lot of household work for us. They – specially Jagannath-da – served a very important role in my life. I was too short then to pick the mangoes and tamarinds from the low hanging branches of the trees. And too weak and of terrible aim to fell them with stones. So, Jagannath-da used to pick me up on his shoulders and then I used to grab a mango or a tamarind. Or two.

That evening by the poolside started a near impossible search for Jagannath-da and Santo-da. I knew the name of the village they lived in but I did not have contacts of anybody in their or my village who would know them. Eventually, my dad had given away some part his land to Jagannath-da and Santo-da and sold the rest. Then we lost contact.

As luck would have it, when I was in Frankfurt during transit this time, one of my very distant cousin sent a message that somebody in that family of Jagannath-da (they were seven brothers and one sister and I am sure had at least twenty to twenty five sons and daughters) actually has a mobile phone and that my cousin will get me the number in a day.

She came thru for me. By the time I landed in Delhi, I had a number. After I landed in Bangalore, I called up that number and I asked whoever picked it up to pass it on to Jagannath-da. “Chintey paarchho? Ami Damu-r chhele Bachchu bolchhi”, I asked, half afraid that I might be a very distant memory for me.

I really had nothing to worry about. He rattled off a lot of things about me and our time together nearly fifty years back that I have mostly forgotten. Touched that he actually remembers me so vividly, I promised to see him and Santo-da this trip.

Yesterday, I made the trek to my old village. Dad had gone off to sleep in the afternoon. I grabbed a local guy and got him to drive me to the village. (My brother had to rush back to Kolkata since my elder nephew is down with fever now).

Just as the car turned at Shibtala, I could see two gentlemen sitting under a tree, umbrellas in their hand (it is rainy season here). I distinctly recognized Jagannath-da. I had to wait till Santo-da smiled to remember his face. I do not remember how long the hugs lasted but they were not long enough!

So many memories. So many things to thank for. Such great, simple and honest people from the yesteryears.

We went walking around the village and remembering some of the old spots. Found out that their family still till the land my dad had given them. Believe it or not, Jagannath-da – the one on my left – is 85 years old! He came walking from his village to meet me. Santo-da brought his bicycle!

That was one of my best intersection points of my life. These are people on whose shoulders I have – literally and figuratively – climbed upon to be who I am today!!! I hope to see them a few more times in my life and spend a little more time with them…

14 August 2017

Of Duke, Diana and Nice biscuits…

If words like Duke and Diana make you feel that the roots of the story lies somewhere in England, you would not be totally wrong.

Let’s go back a couple of days:
I was in Frankfurt airport lounge when I got a message from Anna – who lives in London – that she had seen my FB post of going to India. And that she would be headed to Kolkata to check on her mom too. She was curious if it would be possible for us to meet. If we did that, we would be seeing each other after about 32 years. I told her that I will give my best shot at it since that would give me an opportunity to see her mom too.

Let’s go back a little further. In fact about couple of years:
I had written a FB message to an Anna Mitra saying that I saw her post a comment on Anannya’s post. Looking at her profile picture, I had to ask her – “Are you Diana? If so, would you remember me? I am Rajib – your cousin Mem-didi’s friend from Durgapur. I used to play badminton with you and Simi (Anannya) when you were barely seven or eight during your visits to your uncle (Dubey-kaku) in Durgapur”. Fortunately Diana (aforementioned Anna) made no pretense of not knowing me even after recognizing me 🙂

That day, I got an update on her brother – Atanu – who was called Duke and her dad and mom. The sad news was to find out that her dad was no more. But the good news was that I still had a chance to meet her mom (we called “Pisi” since that is what my friend Aditi – the above mentioned Mem-didi – called her.)

Now let’s take another step back in time. About 34 years from today:
I was in a residential school near Kolkata. My friend Aditi studied in a school in Kolkata and she stayed with her aunt (“Pisi”). Both of us were studying hard those days to get into engineering schools. She was more talented than me – she cracked the engineering exam as well as the medical exam – I stayed with only the engineering exam.

Not sure how it works now, but those days, there were two very renowned tutorials by mail to help you get prepared for the engineering exam – Agarwal’s and Brilliant Tutorials. To split the costs, Aditi and I had worked out with our parents that I would buy Agarwal’s and she would buy Brilliant’s. And then about once a month or so, I used to catch 218/B bus to land up at Pisi’s place to exchange our materials.

Duke and Diana – who were very young then – always used to come and chat with me and after some time Pisi would shoo them away and ask them not to disturb us. (Aditi and I often had to ask each other for help if one managed to solve a problem and the other did not. That was probably not a very accurate way of portraying the true picture since I was the one who always needed help).

But the best memories from those days? The cup of tea and Nice biscuits that Pisi always served me. I am not sure if you get Nice biscuits any more – but they were coconut flavored rectangular biscuits with serrated margin. The best part was the twenty or so pieces of sugar that used to be somehow attached to the top. I am salivating even now remembering how the first bite used to taste. The only essential problem to be solved was whether to dive into a bite straightaway or dip it first in the tea!!

Now let’s try to time-warp all those timelines together:
When you do that, what you get is a room full of people together – some from my past and some I saw for the first time. Almost like those get togethers before – except fast forwarded by a generation. Got to see Duke and Diana after such a long long time. More importantly, got introduced to their kids who were absolutely charming. Discussing studies with Dipanjan on one hand and then talking to Ahona (little Olivia) about the cute street dogs and goats on the streets of India – that was just a nostalgic throwback to over three decades back.

Incredible part though was getting to see Pisi and thanking her for all the care she used to take of me when I visited her.

The time went by too quickly. Maybe Atanu, Anna, Dipanjan, Dipannita or Rina, you can help me fill in the details… all I remember is I was talking loudly and somehow we were all laughing constantly!!!

Let’s not wait for three more decades to laugh together again. I know for a fact nobody would want to hear a octogenarian Rajib talk loudly 🙂

13 August 2017

It is like we never left school…

Dibyendu had figured out that I was going to land from Hyderabad around 8:30 last morning. Trust him to keep track of all things going on with our classmates. The first thing he had told me a few weeks back was that Ananda Bhoumik was also going to land at the same airport around the same time in some other flight.

And that somehow burgeoned into a quick get together of some of our middle school friends even before I could step out of Kolkata airport. I had not seen Ananda since having some tea at a roadside stall (I think was called “Chheds”) in his college campus of IIT-Kharagpur. That was 1985! It was awesome seeing the guy – who was our role model those days in every which way – and continues to be so after such a long time.

Pratap took some time off from his vacation day to come and join us. He works in the airport. I am sure going back to his work place on his vacation day was not high on his list. But he did come out to do it anyways.

Speaking of airport being the workplace – there was also our inimitable Kaushik Bose. Who seems to be incessantly working on yet another business idea always. Also, between the three of these guys, we had most of the bulwark of our school soccer team sitting right there.

Of course the craziest guy was Atanu Bhadra – he actually drove for nearly 200 km (120 miles) to meet us. And after meeting us, he drove back home!! The four of the above also were the cream of our class in terms of academic ranking.

The surprise of the party was Arup Dutt who got wind of the fact that we were all near the airport – and on his way to office, he dropped by too! And by saying “wind of the fact”, I really mean, somehow Dibyendu had figured out that he was going to be in the neighborhood and gotten the message to him. Dibyendu is like the master of ceremony for all our get togethers.

Thank you Dibyendu and thank you Atanu, Ananda, Arup, Kaushik and Pratap for making it so special for me moment I stepped out of the airport.

I am not sure there are too many things I did well in my early years. But choosing of some great friends – that one I nailed it!!!