“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!!
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.
“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.
They never get easier. The only silver lining is that my mother and mother-in-law can still come out to wave me away. My father-in-law, on the other hand, is no more and my father cannot come downstairs to say his goodbyes…
Felt really sorry for mom missing out on the resort trip. She is the one who enjoys going out but is stuck at home due to care-taking responsibilities for my dad.
“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!