16 September 2018

He was a complete stranger then. Now he is a dear friend…

“I hope to meet you down the road again”. Those were the last words we had exchanged on Friday, 9th September 2016. You can read the full story here https://www.rajibroy.com/?p=11642 – how I had a chance meeting with Doug at Chicago O’hare airport. He was selling for an utility company. I was trying to catch a flight.

Our exchange was short initially. But my flight got delayed by 17 minutes. Sensing an window of opportunity, I had walked back to him and had a deeper discussion with him. He had said something that I have never forgotten till this day. I think I had asked him about his experience selling those utility subscription at the airport. His words were “I hate the way people treat me like ####. You will be amazed how people will show me the hand and walk away. I know they are in a hurry. But why treat me like I am below them? I am just trying to do my job.”

“I am just trying to do my job”. Those words had rankled in my mind long enough that ever since I make conscious effort to be gentle with sales people that accost me. Especially those who have been trying to sell me more and more Delta Amex credit cards every week in Atlanta airport!

I get ridiculed by my family for making friends with everybody in Facebook. And in life. But I am incorrigible. My family readily agrees with that. Doug and I became Facebook friends and on his birthday every year, we kept up with each other.

Then, this week, one more window of opportunity opened up. I was in Chicago getting the decks ready for the announcement of the new company and my job there. I had a breakfast slot open. Doug readily agreed to make the 40 mile trek to catch up face to face one more time.

That was an wonderful hour. Got to know about Doug’s background and his kids and wife. We had a great time talking about learning from life’s lessons. Ever gracious, Doug had some great stories from his life that ranged from being hilarious to poignant. He is a great dad! He is a great husband!!

As he left after our breakfast, I reflected on our friendship. He was a complete stranger. And yet fate put us in a collision path – and we were destined to be friends. All the flight that day had to do was leave on time – and I would have never had a second chance with Doug. But, the flight was delayed. Two years later, that resulted in a wonderful breakfast and I got to know a genuine human being.

Long time back I had once expressed my thoughts about this kind of random meetings and then re-meetings in the following way…

In life – like in runs – we start from different points and end at different points. The line between those points – or the speed at which we traverse the line – does not define us. What defines us are the intersection points with others’ lines. For, it is in those intersection points that life offers us the opportunities to acknowledge each other’s journey, celebrate each other’s presence and make a difference to each other’s lines.

And that journey is what it is all about.

That is why we live. That is why we run.

I toast to your good health, Doug! Also, happy birthday, a few days in advance!!

11 August 2018

“Jahaan chaar yaar mil jaaye / Wohi raat ho gulzar”

In keeping with the song lyrics from the Bollywood movie Sharaabi, last night bloomed when the four old friends from school met at our house. The four of us went to school together from fifth grade to tenth grade. The three of them (excluding me) got to see each other for the first time after 1983. That would be thirty five years!!

Sanjeev is vacationing with his family – Ananya (Tina), Rohan and Alisha in the US and swung by our house last night. As did Shishir who drove down for five hours from Charlotte and Manbir who drove a couple of hours from South Georgia.

It was magical to re-live some of those memories of St. Xavier’s days! I wish Manbir and Shishir’s families were able to join us too!

[Sharmila]

19 July 2018

Meeting Lata!!

Lata and I go back to the mid 1980s when I was studying engineering in Chennai. We became very close friends then. I think she left for the USA to do higher studies around the same time when I started working in India. Later, when I came to the USA, I had kept up with her. I remember some of my office friends in USA and she had once driven from New York to DC area. I had also visited her in her college (Columbia) in New York later when she was doing her PhD. And I certainly recollect she meeting me and Sharmila in New York once. Finally, about four years back I had met her in Atlanta (I think she had come to CDC).

Her area of work has always fascinated me. It used to be that she was into oncology. She has worked in two of the biggest pharmaceutical companies. But now she is in a much smaller company. And she is working on another very interesting area (for me at least) – bacteria!!!

If you think I talk, you should meet Lata! She is nothing if not a bundle of energy. Over dinner in Boston last week, I got a great primer on bacteria. I learnt a lot about so many different bacteria we have in our stomach and our gut and how it is difficult to put bacteria from outside into our gut thru the digestive system. Apparently, the bacteria that thrive in our gut and are crucial for our existence cannot survive in any acidic environment – which our stomach is.

One of my curiosity questions was about probiotics that we hear so much these days and see TV ads of. In general I am very skeptical of anything on the food front that come up suddenly as new fads. But she did put my curiosity to rest. I understand while having probiotics cannot harm you – indeed, they increase the good bacteria – the matter of fact is those bacteria is very easy to produce by our body and it does so constantly. The ones that are far more important and is singularly important for our system to survive (in the guts, for example), no amount of eating probiotic food is going to help.

Well, that was end of Chapter 1 when we finished dinner.

Hope I do not have to wait for another four years for the second chapter!! Cannot wait to learn more new things about bacteria…

11 July 2018

This one is for you, Mrs. Martin !!!

Way back in 1995, on a July morning, I had started a new job. My new manager Dan Stenger, on my first day at work, took me around to meet all the developers in that quiet startup company. “And this is Steve Martin”, he explained to me as he took me to yet another desk. “Steve, this is our new developer, Rajib Roy”.

Steve took his eyes off from his screen and mischievously told me – “Not that Steve Martin. Although sometimes I get emails meant for him!”. I grinned back and might have even said “That is funny”. I had learnt two things that day when I walked out of that room. I have a colleague named Steve Martin. And that there was another Steve Martin who probably was a very famous guy.

Today, I can whole heartedly admit to my friend Steve that I have never watched movies and there was absolutely no reason for me to knowingly grin that day. But I did fool him that day. Speaking of which, did I mention that I was made a development manager a few weeks after joining the company? Yeah, all that stuff about you cannot fool all the people all the time… don’t believe a word of it 🙂

In any case, Steve and I eventually parted from the company and went our own ways. I had an incredible chance meeting with him about a couple of years back where he had tagged me on a Facebook post of a picture of an airport terminal from the inside. I had correctly guessed that we were at the same airport at that moment and ran from one terminal to another to see him – albeit for a few seconds (they were finishing up his boarding).

If that was a great coincidence, try this…

Yesterday, I had posted about my Lyft driver who took me from Boston to Natick. Steve saw that post and let me know that he was born in that small town I had gone to. In fact, even gave me the address of the house he was born in. Quickly consulted Google maps and realized that my hotel was about 2.5 miles away. My first instinct was to run early morning to the house, take a few pictures and surprise Steve.

Instead of surprising Steve, I actually let him know of my plans. He told me that his mom would be thrilled if she could see that house again. That was the house she had given birth to Steve in – in the early 60s! Nearly six decades ago!!

Given that, I did not want to leave anything to chances. So, when my hostess for the evening came to pick me up – I commandeered her car and got her to take me to that house.

As I stopped there and started taking a few quick pictures from outside, I could see somebody rapidly closing the window shutters from inside. Got out of the car and rang the bell…

“You will find this very strange and I do not blame you for that. You see, my friend was born in this house nearly six decades back. My name is Rajib and I am visiting this town for business. I found out about my friend’s house and thought I could send a nice surprise to his mom.”

And then I offered to show Steve’s picture and our exchanges on my phone – but the lady – Julie is her name, did not need anything. She trusted my story right away. She explained how the house was built in 1953 (or did she say 1951?) and that there have been five owners before them. But she did not know of the Martins.

One of her sons peeked out from inside the house with a video game in hand.

“Was he born here too?”, I asked.
“Yes, This is John. He is 9”. And then she yelled for a Timmy. Presently another young kid came out. “And this is Timmy. He is 8. He was born here too”.
“Wow”!
I explained to the two kids how my friend from Dallas was born in that house many many years back and I had come to take a picture of the house.
“Can we be in it?”, they asked innocently.
“Sure”

And that is how I managed to get a few shots of the house.

Later last night, I sent the pictures to Steve and he went back to his archives to send a few pictures of the house from the yesteryears. Including one from the late 50s with his dad standing in front of it and one on a snow covered day!

What is the chance that in 1995, when I met Steve on that day, I would realize that someday I would be the guy that would reconnect him and his mother to the house that she gave birth to him in?

Life, I tell you! Always full of incredible surprises!!!

10 July 2018

Sometimes, I forget how lucky I am…

The meeting in Boston got done on time. My next meeting was in Natick but I had some time in hand. Not being a big fan of the crazy parking lot fashionably called Mass Turnpike around this time of the day, I figured the most prudent thing would be to hightail it to Natick and wait out there.

“So, where are you from?”, I asked my Lyft driver as he rolled thru the traffic that was starting to build up on the Pike.
“Ghana”, he replied.
I played it totally cool. Like I knew everything that was to be known about Ghana. And casually dropped “Great! My daughter will be there next month for six months”.

Guess who got surprised? He looked at me in his rear view mirror and asked “Where are you from? Why is she going to Ghana?”
I explained that I am from Atlanta. Originally from India but not part of the Indian diaspora in Africa. Also that Natasha will be studying for her fall semester in the University of Ghana.

He seemed to be thrilled by those two facts. First, he kept telling me how Natasha is going to love Accra. And that people in America like me have very different understanding of Ghana and Accra from what it really is.

He then encouraged me to visit Accra with my family. And then quickly pivoted to India.

“You know Bollywood?”, he asked.
“Well, somewhat. I did not grow up watching movies and do not do so now either. But I know what is Bollywood”.
“My man, you do not know what you are missing. Don’t see today’s Bollywood movies. See the old ones. Watch Amitabh Bachchan movies. You know who he is right?”
I mentioned that I had heard of him.
That seemed to get him even more energized.

“You have to watch his movies tonight. You know his best movie? My most favorite movie in the whole world?”
“What?”
“Sholay!! You have seen it, right?”
I had to admit to him that I was probably the only one among 1.2 Billion Indians who has not seen Sholay yet.

He went on to talk about “Amar, Akbar, Anthony” and waxed eloquent on Dharmendra.

Having concluded that I had my fill of Bollywood trivia for one evening, i tried changing the topic…
“So, how did you land up in Boston?”
“Well, I have a very funny life story.”
“Talk to me”. Finally he was in my familiar zone. I am always up for listening to people’s stories – especially if they are funny. Bollywood is of no use to me.

Scratch that funny part.

What he told me was not in the least bit funny.

Foster Osei was born as a first child to a young Ghanian couple in Accra. Then when he was only 2 years old they put him in his grandmother’s home (from mom’s side) and left for London.

“How long were you with your grandmother?”
“They never came back to take me.”
“What??????”
“Yeah, man. They had four more kids in London. But never came back to take me.”
“How did your grandmother raise you? What did your grandfather do? What was their income?”
“My grandfather died before I was born. My grandmother had the property my grandfather left”
“Your parents never came back??? Did they write to you?”
“Never”

“Oh! Have you ever seen your father after that?”
“When I was 18, my parents visited Ghana. That is when I saw them.”
“What was your first feeling?”
“Anger. I was very angry that I had four siblings in London but nobody took me there. I still have nothing but anger for them.”

“You said you have two young kids, right?”, I asked.
“Yes man, 12 and 8”.
“How has that affected how you look at your kids?”
“Well, I had no idea growing up what a dad looks like or being a father figure looks like. My grandmother was my dad and my mom. When she passed away….”
You could see he was choking up.

“Sorry about your grandmother, man”. By now, I was trying to show some empathy by saying “man” like he was 🙂 But to push him back to his kids, I re-asked “How has that affected how you treat your kids?”

“I am always there for them. I do not miss any school event. Any picnic. Any holidays. I take them to New York in my car whenever we have time. I will never let them miss their dad.”

“Well, as hard it was, it seems it has made you a great dad.”
He thought for a second and sighed heavily. “Maybe you are right. Maybe it is all God’s design to bring the best out of me”

Turns out one of his uncles (mother’s brother) who was in the USA eventually did his paperwork and got him here and got him started in a small business. He has grown from there.

One touching part of this story… his siblings never knew about him for most of their lives. But the youngest one – a sister – just before she got married in London, made it her life’s mission to see her eldest brother she had heard about. She made it to Boston eventually, spent a couple of days with her elder brother that she had never seen in her life and went back to London to get married.

By this time, we had pulled up to the Courtyard.

“Would you mind stepping out of the car and take a picture with me? I want to send it to my daughter to tell her I have one more friend from Ghana. And to the rest of my friends just so that they get to know of your story”

“Sure, man”.

As he finally left, I stood there with my overnighter and office bag waving at him and thinking to myself…. “Sometimes you forget, Rajib, how lucky you have been in life”.

20 June 2018

“What if this roof falls on your head?”

Circa 1985.
Mr. Dubey’s house.
I was sitting across him in his living area explaining to him some worries I was having. Mr. Dubey was a gentleman who I trusted instinctively – be it career oriented questions or personal questions. The big choice I was facing that time was which college to pick and what engineering to focus on. I think I was pretty sure I would do computer science. Not that I had any idea what computer science was (unlike today’s kids who, I find make far more educated choices), but since the topper from my school the previous year had gone to do computer science, I figured that is what I was supposed to do too.

The question was whether to go the college that I was likely to get – but very far from home (it would take a 36 hour train ride to get there with one train switching involved) or go to nearer colleges. I wanted to go to the further away college (somebody told me they were ranked higher) but I had a lot of worrisome questions. Remember, I was 18.

“What if this happens…?” “What if that happens…?” my questions were endless that evening for Mr. Dubey.

After listening to me patiently, finally Mr. Dubey pointed to the roof of his house and asked “What if this roof falls on your head?”.

And then proceeded to succinctly explain to me that what I did not know, I did not know. I needed to quit conjuring up possibilities and then worrying about them. His advise was to go with my gut and then work hard to make it the right decision. Nobody was going to run a control experiment to prove me wrong.

Well, I did land up in that college. I did not exactly work very hard but realizing that there is no control experiment, I have always claimed that to be the right decision 🙂

Seriously though, looking back, that was one of the best words of wisdom I had ever received. Candidly, I appreciated the words far more later in my life on multiple occasions than possibly on that day 33 years back.

That was the incident that I kept going back to in my mind as I drove up the steep hill in Hayward in California last week and pulled up in front of Ananya’s house. It was a quick trip in California for work. But there is always time for Mr. Dubey. There has to be. This time, I also got to see Dubey-kakima, Blake and Simi and the youngest addition to Dubey-Kelsoe family – Hanae!!!

18 June 2018

Do these things happen only to me?

The other Sunday, I was at Milton’s – Sharmila’s and my watering hole. I was by myself since Sharmila was traveling somewhere. Milton’s is less of a place for Sharmila and I to meet our friends or have romantic dinner – it is more of a weekend check on all the staff and their families who we have grown up with in the last 11 years. Many of the staff have changed over the years but we have remained steadfastly the regulars who show up on late Sunday evenings – often the only guests at the bar – and have a drink or two but mostly chat with the staff there.

Ashley was the regular Sunday person behind the bar. After settling down in my usual chair, I asked
“Ashley, how has the day been?”
“Pretty good. We had a relatively light day. By the way, my brother waited on you this morning.”

At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about. Who is her brother? And I did not go out for a lunch meeting. In fact, I was out with my bike.

“Your brother waited on me? He works at a restaurant too?”
“Yes”
“Umm… are you sure he knows me? I was actually out with a biker friend of mine this morning. Where did he see me?”

Finally, we put the picture together.

That morning, Avi and I had taken our bikes out for a lazy ride. In fact, we were riding around Lake Lanier. At some point of time, we stopped at Pelican Pete for some food. It is a fantastic place on the water with great views. I remembered having parked the bikes about a hundred yards away and then both of us sat by the water and had some greasy food.

“Wait, is his name Ryan? I remember chatting up this young gentleman who came and served us.” (no surprises there. I chat up anybody who waits on our table 🙂 )
“Yes!”

“So, how did he figure out that I know you? ”

That is where it got even more interesting…

After coming back home, I had posted a picture of Pelican Pete on my blog (and Facebook). Ashley, who is a Facebook friend of mine (yep! no surprises there either; I make everybody my Facebook friend), saw the picture and had called up her brother – who happens to work at Pelican Pete – to ask if he had seen two Indian guys in their motorbikes that morning.

Ryan let her know that not only did he see us (I guess he had noticed the helmets we were carrying) but he was indeed the one who helped us at our table. And chatted with us for some time too!!

That night I wrote to Avi about the coincidence and he perhaps correctly pointed out that these things happen only to me…

What is the chance that completely unbeknownst to me, I would have been chatting with a brother and a sister separately during lunch and dinner in two completely separate restaurants in separate cities – one on a motorbikebike trail and the other at my watering hole?

Something good did come out of my much derided practice of making friends with everybody in Facebook, posting too many pictures on Facebook and talking to too many strangers 🙂

10 June 2018

The bank manager who left his country to be a hotel doorman

The family was still sleeping when I woke up in the hotel room early morning. As is my wont, I got dressed up and headed downstairs immediately to hunt for some coffee. Which was readily available in the lobby. Other than that coffee and myself, nobody else was there. Well, except Joseph. The gentlemen who had helped us last evening with our luggage and car. He was standing at the door.

“You were working late last evening. And you are back already early in the morning?”
“Yes, sir!”
“Did you get to see your kids last night when you went home? Or were they already sleeping?”
“They are in UK, sir!!”

“In UK? What are they doing there?”
“Studying”
“Why studying in UK? We have so many good schools here. Why not here?”

The next half an hour was a lesson for me about how blessed so many of us are and therefore prone to making assumptions that can be completely false. Let’s try to stitch the story back…

Meet my friend – Joseph – the doorman at the downtown Marriott in Durham. He is a doorman today. But he was a bank manager! Yes, a bank manager in his home country Zimbabwe! By the way, anybody from Zimbabwe and India is guaranteed to have one common connection – cricket!! In fact, we both remembered a historic match India and Zimbabwe had played about 35 years back where the single-handed exploits of one Kapil Dev had completely turned the match upside down.

But Zimbabwe fell in bad times with very high corruption, political issues and some level of violence. The economy started deteriorating quickly. Joseph, who was married and had two kids was determined to escape the country to give his children a shot at personal prosperity thru education.

Coming to US was not an option. However, he had better luck with UK. (Zimbabwe was a colony of UK who called it Rhodesia). He managed to send his wife and kids to UK so that they can get a good education. He eventually came to the US and started working here. The savings he has and the money his wife makes in UK support their kids’ education.

Both of the kids are getting ready to graduate – one is in medicine and the other is an engineer.

“How often do you get to see your kids?”
“Oh! It is not easy, sir. It costs a lot of money. We do no have that kind of money. Maybe once every two to three years?”
“And how often do you get to see your family in Zimbabwe?”
“I have not gone back even once sir. We need the money for my kids’ education”

I was a little overwhelmed by his answers as it started sinking in my mind how his sense of responsibility as a father as kept him physically away from his own kids most of his life.

“So, what next? Now that they are going to graduate, what is the next step?”
“Well, once they start to earn money, maybe my wife and my kids can come to the US. Maybe they can do higher studies here or work here.”

“How about you and your wife?”
He thought for a few seconds and said “I think I want to go back to Zimbabwe”

“You want to go back to Zimbabwe? Why? It has still got a lot of problems, right?”
“My family has a lot of land there, sir”
“So, sell it off and continue living here close to your kids”.

Joseph looked at the floor for a few seconds as he weaved his thoughts thru in his mind.

Finally he lifted his eyes, looked at me and slowly said … “Home is home, sir. And my kids will start their own lives who knows where.” …

17 May 2018

The remarkable journey of a young, unemployed Columbian

“I used sell perfumes in the streets”, said he to my utter disbelief.
“What?”
“Yeah! I could keep $7 for every $20 bottle I sold. I had to figure out how to make money”.
“So, you were selling perfumes on streets?”, I had to ask him to re-clarify.
“Yes. Not just streets. I would walk up to the banks and try to sell perfumes to the tellers. My first sale was actually in a truck stop”.

I almost lost my grip on the bourbon glass.

“You were selling perfumes in a truck stop?”
“Yes, that was where my first successful sale was!”

This story I got to hear!

“So, let me get this straight. You have a degree in Finance. And yet, you were selling perfumes? How does one become a CEO from there? Back up and start from where you were born.”

Over a glass of bourbon, sitting at a local bar, I got to know the remarkable life history of Carlo Martinez – the founder and CEO of Steppingblocks.com. Apparently, he knew me from a prior work experience and a couple of days back, had asked to have a social meeting with me and a common friend. First, I am glad I showed up. Second, I am glad that the common friend did not show up (although he owes us a drink now) – else I would not have known the full history of Carlo.

Born in Columbia to poor parents, he eventually found his way to USA thanks to his hard working dad who got a break in Coca Cola in Bogota and eventually did well enough to be moved to the US of A. There is a similarity in his story and mine – where my dad who used to till land revolted against his family and moved away from his village to get a break in a steel plant.

His father insisted that he pursue Engineering. (again, that sounded like Indian parents to me – it was either that or “become a Doctor” ). Carlo joined Georgia South. But did not like Engineering much at all. More out of a whim than any well thought out plan, he took a class in Finance. And fell in love with “NPV – Net Present Value”. Somehow NPV made a lot of sense to him and he decided Finance is what he was going to do.

Finished his degree in Finance. Right around the time the economy started crashing in 2007/2008. The job market was very tough. Especially for young college kids. For three long years, Carlo did not get a job. But he had to make money. His self assessment was that he liked to interact with people and probably would be good at selling.

Became a bartender. Well, those jobs were available and it got him to interact with a lot of people.

From there, in an effort to make more money – he started selling perfumes!!

“So, how did it feel to sell perfumes in a truck stop?”

“The biggest thing I had to learn was to get over the fear of rejection. It was not easy being brushed away by people in the street and being looked at funny. People could be mean too! But once I was able to get over that, it was much easier. Selling became a passion. Rich man, poor man, beautiful young lady, old sick lady – it did not matter to me. I saw it as a chance to establish a connection with a human being and see if we could do something for each other. I had a perfume to sell that might have value to them. They had money that I was trying to earn.”

“But”, he continued, “I also learnt that people can be good. Really good. I had to do door to door selling. Most people would shut the door on my face rudely. But then there were those who would go out of their way to be nice to me. Some would even call me in to have a coffee. Many would buy but many would not. But they empathized with my struggle and willingness to earn money the hard way. In an extreme case, I was once invited to have dinner with the family. I think they took pity on me – seeing as it is that I needed food – but that notwithstanding, I cannot get over their magnanimity towards me.”

Being a people person, he befriended a lot of the tellers in the bank that he used to try selling perfumes to. And that is how he got his first break. He was offered to be a teller – given his people skills – in one of the banks here in Atlanta. Actually the largest bank here.

Once in a corporate world, he figured out how to grow his career very quickly.

“What got you from being a teller to be a VP in a large bank?”

“Well, looking back, I think I was willing to work hard and because I had gotten over my fear of rejection – I would take lot more risks than others. I would seek the projects that nobody wanted, I would approach senior people in the company without any fear and like I said, I was willing to work very very hard. You will be surprised, sitting in a air conditioned room, when you think about those hot days on the street trying to sell perfumes, how quickly you can get motivated to keep working!!! “

From there Carlo eventually jumped to a company that both of us worked in. Apparently he had seen me there. But I cannot recollect that. And then he started his own analytics company and has been growing very fast.

With his level of passion and energy I have no doubt he and his company will be incredibly successful.

In one sign of weakness though, in his otherwise fine judgment skills, apparently, he has formed a good opinion of me. He has followed me and my work even after I left our old company and that is what made him seek a social meeting with me. Just for this once, we will overlook that weakness of his.

Without that, I would not have had a chance to meet this remarkable young gentleman!!