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?”
“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 🙂 )

“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?”
“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.
“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!!

24 April 2018

Unique Intersection Point

This is going to be a very difficult story to string together. This involves a complete stranger in Singapore, a hospice patient in Atlanta, a small resort called Ibeeza in south part of West Bengal and an office building in Kolkata. Also, an untimely demise. At the end the story is that of an incredible attitude.

Let me give my best shot at stringing this together.

“So, exactly, how do I know you?”, asked her after we settled down at the Gin and Tonic bar at JW Marriott in Singapore.

This is the first time I am seeing her in person. We had become Facebook friends for some time and even exchanged a lot of messages (more on that later) but I forgot how I got to know her.

Turns out Indrani worked in the same office in Kolkata as my school mate from middle school days – Suman Das. They used to sit at desks a spitting distance away. Apparently, one of those days, she had mentioned to Suman how she loves following a few blogs and the write-ups that she reads there. Suman – not exactly known for having high standards while referring blog writers – asked her if she had ever seen my blog. Turned out Indrani liked my blog too when she started reading them. (I think that office attracted people who liked low quality blog writing 🙂 🙂 ).

In any case, all this happened unbeknownst to me. Then one day, I got a FB request from Indrani. Like many other requests, I just let it be since I could not recognize the person. I suspect she must have asked Suman why I had not accepted. For one day, I got a message from Suman saying his friend has sent me a FB request. She likes reading my stuff and that he knows her personally and can be trusted.

I accepted that request and that was that. I kept writing and she kept reading silently.

Then one day, I wrote about Mr. Thompson – the blind patient I have in one of the hospices. One of the things if you remember I had asked him about his thoughts on being born blind versus losing eyesight later in life. Which one was more difficult? I remember his thoughtful answer -while he admitted not coming from a position of having gone thru both to do a true comparison, he felt it was harder when something is given to you and then taken away.

That statement resonated with Indrani. Over personal messages she kept telling me why that was a very timely message for her. During our meeting at the bar, she joined all the missing dots for me. Her life story is an amazing one. Like many lucky ones, she started with a great job at an early age, met the love of her life and married him. For seven years, she lived the blessed life of a great husband, great inlaws, great friends, great jobs and of course her great parents.

And then one fine day fate dealt a cruel blow and she lost her husband at the tender age of 32 or so in a matter of hours after succumbing to brain aneurysm. Her words drifted away as I lost attention – just trying mentally to put myself in her position. When I finally came back to my attention, she had already covered the part where – to add to all the sufferings – she lost her father in law too after a year or so.

It was around that time she started reading my blogs. As she struggled to cope with the losses in her personal life, facing a situation that most people do not face, it was a struggle to figure out how to move forward or even what to do next. One thing she kept mentioning is how she had very supportive in laws, parents, friends etc through all that. I was pretty intrigued by her positivity. For that age, that had to be a sign of great maturity and equanimity.

To probe a little I asked “As you look back, how do you feel about those days? There must have been a sense of helplessness. A sense of why do you have to go thru so much pain?”

Her answer stunned me. Remember she is barely in her mid thirties. Her perfect framing of the answer was (and I liked the way she put it so much that I had to ask her to excuse me as I wrote it down on my iPad) – “Everybody has problems. Mine came this way.”

What an attitude!! I would be lying to you if I did not admit that I had to fight back a lump of throat. Indeed we all have problems. That is not what defines us. How we deal with it is what defines us. You can consider yourself a victim or you can learn from it. Certainly, Indrani sets the bar for me in how to deal with challenges in life.

It was in this backdrop that Mr. Thompson’s words were so poignant for her. That broke the dam – so to speak – and she wrote to me about her life history and how she realized the truth in Mr. Thompson’s words. It was better not to have ever had a husband than to have lost him so early. She completely believed in Mr. Thompson’s words.

As I had explained to her in our exchanges, Mr. Thompson’s is not an easy life. He bangs into walls, can’t find where his bathroom is, does not know where the remote is (TV is his sole company)… There are small things that you do not realize till you see them. One day, I saw him struggling to shave. Just imagine trying to put a blade in your razor – much less find out where they are and position yourself in front of the wash basin. But as I had told Indrani, he is determined to make the best of what is left for him. He is 96 and he is the most well dressed person I have seen at that age. Always shirt tucked in, shoes on, hair combed … remember he cannot see himself … but it is like he does not give a darn to what has happened. He is determined to be as normal as he can be.

BTW, I have talked to Mr. Thompson about Indrani and her sentiments for his courage. Mr. Thompson, in return, passed his regards to her. I even carried a picture of him for Indrani.

I learnt sitting at the bar, that as we were going thru these exchanges then, she was starting to make up her mind to leave her past and move forward too. Many months later, I got a message from her that she was going to get married again! She has found this wonderful person but that would also mean she would have to move to Singapore and away from her parents, her mother-in-law from first marriage (who she is very close to), her job, her friends etc… I wished her the best – thought this was a perfect chance to press the reset button and promised to look her and her husband up if I ever showed up in Singapore.

Unfortunately, I missed her husband since he was working late and I was running late for a dinner meeting.

You would think the story would stop here, right? Ah! then you do not know me at all. There is an intersection point behind this intersection point. Remember, I have not explained to you yet where that Ibeeza resort fits in the whole story.

Well, if you go back to a Jan 23, 2013 post in my blog or FB, you will see the story of how I was hosting all my cousins at that resort for a couple of days and while taking some rest by the pool by myself, I thought I saw Suman Das walk past me. Nobody has yet fathomed how two students from tenth grade ever managed to meet in a small resort and recognize each other some 30 years later.

Suman was there for a office party. He introduced me to his wife, mom and son who were there and I posted a picture of them in that blog. He had also introduced me to the rest of his office folks. Many of them had a lot of questions about life in America. I had a great time with all of them!

Who know who was there at the party? Yes, same Indrani!! Turns out it was she who had arranged the whole party!! I have seen her, must have met her but had no idea that it was the same person who became my Facebook friend or was even sitting in front me at the bar. I hurriedly showed pictures from that day on my iPad and she fished out pictures from that day on her phone. They matched!!!!

Is that cool or is that cool?

Best intersection point ever!!

24 April 2018

Dip Sengupta!! After 33 years!!!

My usual routine coming back from India entails taking an evening flight back to Delhi and then catching the night flight back to US. This time though, I took the morning flight – I needed a few extra hours to go see Dip, his family and most importantly, his mom.

Last time I had seen Dip’s mom – and I believe Dip too – was after our Board exams in twelfth grade. That would be 1985 summer. Navin, Rahul, Rakesh and myself had taken a train from Kokata all the way to Siliguri where Dip was waiting for us to take us to his home which was on the way to Darjeeling. They lived in this beautiful house in an even more beautiful scenic setting. New Chumta Tea Estate it was!

I remember having the time of my life there. Dip’s mom showered incredible attention on us. She had arranged for a lot of local trips to see some idyllic sights in the mountains. We had taken quite a few pictures during that trip. Much later in life, I had digitized them and sure enough – I carried them with me this time!!

I forgot to tell you how I know Dip. We were classmates in Narendrapur Ramakrishna Mission College. That was for our eleventh and twelfth grades (junior and senior high school years). It was a residential school and Dip and I were in the same hostel (dorm). For quite some time we were even next door neighbors. However, our streams were different – he did English, History, Economics and such and I did Physica, Chemistry, Math and all that.

In the past I have told you about two of the teachers that I admire most when it comes to learning English as a subject – Sir Donegan (from fifth grade) and Mrs. Biswas (from ninth and tenth grade). If you were to ask me to name similarly two of my classmates whose English I admired and still admire the most – without even a shred of doubt, they would be Dibyendu Dutta (I wrote about him once) and Dip Sengupta. If you read some of his Facebook posts even today, you will be completely taken in by the lucidity and natural flow of words.

It was great to see Mrs. Sengupta after 33 years. That would be actually two-thirds of my life so far!! Unfortunately, I did not visit quickly enough to see Mr. Sengupta too but I was glad to see that Mrs. Sengupta is in great health. In fact, one of the rare cases of any of my friends’ parents keeping up with excellent health. Touch wood!!

We talked endlessly about that trip we had made and exchanged notes of what we remembered.

I have to say – from that initial scream and hug once I saw Dip to his insistence on going out for lunch and adda – it was as if those intervening 33 years never happened. The camaraderie and joi-de-vivre was untouched and intact. It was like we had seen each other just the other day.

Speaking of going out for lunch and adda, Dip took me to a local place and we had some outstanding animated discussions – as you can see in the picture. Dip has an unique perspective – what with he being a very successful business person in Delhi. Additionally, his professional area of interest being marketing (specifically advertisement) and his educational degree being in history, he brings a lot of fresh perspective to a person with my background. Our topics of discussions ranged from geopolitical events to consumer marketing.

Apart from the fresh perspective that I talked about, one unmistakable trait of Dip you just cannot miss is his positivity. His observations of some of the concerns across the world and in India on economic and geo-political issues never left the moorings of an underlying framework that on a macro basis, the world is getting better and better. This is something that I absolutely subscribe to. And am sometimes amazed by how we can get into the microscopic details of analysis of an event – and assign motivation or judgment to it immediately – and yet not be able to step back and see the larger (and slower) trajectory the world is on.

Perhaps learning deeply history gives him the advantage of setting perspective to things. On the other hand, I think that positivity is just sheer Dip. He was like that even when he was 16 years old.

I love spending time with such people! May your tribe increase, Dip Sengupta!!

24 April 2018

He was conspicuous by his absence

One of the last stops in Durgapur was to go meet Mr. and Mrs. Bhattacharya! Gautam and I were again classmates back in early stages of school life. I have great memories of spending quite some time at his house next to the maintenance office. There was this span of time where I used to show up at his house everyday to work on a school project together. Frankly, my contribution was to mostly observe as he wielded the solder iron deftly. I was pretty happy being amused by the smoke that used to come out every time he dipped the solder iron in that lubricant flux before he picked up a mercurial ball of solder.

It used to be beastly hot summer days that time. And Mrs. Bhattacharya always used to make a glass of “sharbot” for me!! Also, Mrs. Bhattacharya was a colleague of my mom from the same school.

Over the years, I have kept up with the Bhattacharya family. I have made occasional trips to their house – chatted with Gautam’s better half Gopa – who happened to go to college with my sister many times and listened to songs sung by their son Sankha. But regrettably, my interactions with Mr. Bhattacharya started dwindling as he started succumbing to dementia, Alzheimer’s and all that. At some point he stopped recognizing me and then his movements became very limited.

I became aware recently that he is completely bed ridden now. So, went to check on him. He could not get up from his bed. In fact, he could not even turn to my side as I sat in the bed beside him. As I put my hand on him, he softly opened his eyes. He whispered a few words but I do not think he knew who he was talking to.

The good news is that Mrs. Bhattacharya looked great. She has had her tough days and only recently was in an ICU. But she seems to have bounced back nicely. After leaving uncle in his bed, we came to the living area and chatted about my parents and the good old days for a long time. I reminded her how kind she used to be to me and that I have never forgotten that!!

I hope to see them a few more times in my future trips!!

24 April 2018

Attempt to settle scores… thwarted!

During one of those friendly banters with Sharmistha back in USA – I think it was when Subrata and she had visited us at our place in Atlanta – I had threatened that one of these days, I would go to her parents in Durgapur and complain about her. She had dared me to do so and said that her parents would never believe me.

So, I showed up with my brother at her parents’ place during this trip to Durgapur. And I think I was right that she was afraid I would actually complain. I say that because Sharmistha was at her parents’ house already when I arrived – no doubt to prevent me from complaining 🙂

Jokes apart, I had a great time with Mr. and Mrs. Konar. In fact, had some good long conversations with Mr. Konar.

In one of those intersection point moments that I often talk about, it came out that his best friend in the neighborhood is also the brother of my brother’s mother-in-law. To top it off, that gentleman’s son was a classmate of my sister from first thru fourth grade and had visited us in our house back in the early seventies!!

It is a crazy small world!!!

24 April 2018

She did hang in for me!!!

I forget the context now but I was talking to my elementary school day friend – Sudipta Chattaraj – a few months back and he informed me about his mom’s quick onset of Alzheimer’s. On an aside, I have noticed that among the previous generation (my parents’ age) in India, there seems to be a greater propensity to suffer from Alzheimer’s, dementia and even Parkinson’s. I am not sure whether this is relatively new or a by product of people living longer or I just did not know the names when I was growing up but senior people were still being afflicted by them.

Sudipta was one of those all rounders in our school. He was very good in studies, a great athlete, very gentle and soft spoken and – this one made me most jealous of him those days – had an impeccable handwriting!! Our teacher’s would call it “motor moto” – like pearls!! Sudipta is also the resident pediatrician for all our school friends’ kids. When Nikita and Natasha were young and we visited India, during those invariable bouts of getting unwell, we would make a bee line for Sudipta’s house!!

I was a little dismayed that Sudipta was concerned at the speed of how the ailment was progressing with his mom. I remember – and he reminded me – that I had told him “Ask her to hang in there for a couple of months more at least. I want to come and see her”. That is why Mrs. Chattaraj was the first person I visited in Durgapur after leaving my inlays’ place.

She seemed to have certainly grown very frail and the conversations were not always very coherent. But we talked for quite some time and tried to remember the days when she was our age and we were but kids. Most encouragingly for me, she did pick up on some of my jokes and laughed at them! Ha ha!! 🙂

It was great to see Sudipta and his family after many a year!!

23 April 2018

That was a pleasant surprise!!

We were busy in the private room in a restaurant in Durgapur – all the St. Xavier’s friends and their wives – when somebody came in to tell me that there was a visitor who wanted to see me. Somewhat curious, I stepped out to the most pleasant surprise of the day! Turned out it was Amit Konar!

Amit used to be in Food and Beverage in the Durgapur hotel I normally stay in. Over the years, we had become great friends. In fact, almost always, he used to take care of the reservations for me. There was a time when I had brought my parents back to visit Durgapur and stayed in the hotel for a couple of days. Amit had taken great care of them – especially their food. Even today, if I tell dad that I am going to stay in Peerless Inn, his first question would be “Sei chheleta aachhey?” (Is that guy still there?)

Eventually, Amit branched off on his own and I had not seen him since then. Somehow he got word that I was in town and in that particular restaurant that evening – so he came by to say Hi!

Of course, we said more than Hi! I was very encouraged to hear that his business is doing very well. He always struck me as a hard working and sincere person. Add to that his smartness, he is bound to do well. We talked about his young daughter and his future expansion plans.

It was good to catch up with this gentleman again!

Thank you Amit for taking the pains to come over to see me!