10 August 2022

Invigorating conversations. With a complete stranger.

Sometime last year, my friend from engineering college days – G. Balakrishnan – who we simply referred to as “GB” (engineering students of four decades back were well ahead of their times in recognizing the uselessness of multiple syllables or even the need to spell out everything – which, I am glad to see, the current generation and social media is finally getting around to embracing 🙂 ) had sent a rather strange request from India.

His request was to give some time over the phone to a friend of his who lives in the Bay area. I assumed the gentleman – Shriram Narayanan being his name – would want to discuss career move related topics. The request was strange because what his friend wanted to discuss had nothing to with work at all. It was about my blog! Apparently, he had a lot of questions.

I finally got to call him up on Oct 27th. I was driving from one meeting to another and took the call from my car. A scheduled half an hour meeting went over an hour. I still remember discussing finiteness of time, how do we recognize in ourselves what we are good at and such absorbing topics. Regrettably, I had to end the call since I had to go to a meeting.

This trip to SFO, I actually caught up with him face to face. Over a cup of coffee, we continued with where we had left last October. The discussions were refreshing and invigorating. Truth be told, I have not come across too many people with whom I can have this kind of in depth discussions on very different topics. (Magesh Ranganathan pops up as an immediate exception to my mind)

“Learning” was a big topic of discussion this time around. Why we learn and how we learn. And why we stop learning. How we learn from experience but that in itself is a tricky process since that assumes accurate recollections from memory – which is an absolute myth. (this does not include certain other kind of learnings – like skill learning – biking, swimming – where the brain somehow involuntarily commits to some parts of memory that it has no problem recovering on demand even after five decades!)

Hope to have more sessions with Shriram in the future.

9 August 2022

Meeting my penpal

I thought I knew a thing or two about fountain pens and nibs and all that. But at the end of the evening, I realized how little I knew about what makes those pens and nibs come to life. All because I got to have dinner with a pen pal of mine from the other end of the world.

Let’s back up a little. About twenty years back, I had a colleague at work – Madhuri. She was fifteen years younger than me and we worked in two different ends of the world – Dallas and Bangalore – but of course, we knew each other since we were in the same team.

It was much later – and by that time, she had moved to Singapore with her husband Rupesh – that we realized we shared a common fascination for writing with fountain pens. It was a post on Facebook that she had put up that had triggered my attention.

And that started a long series of writing letters to each other – between Atlanta and Singapore. The topics invariably were about life, travel, parents in India, old friends and so on.

In one of those letters earlier this year, she let me know that they were moving from Singapore to San Francisco. Even after they moved, the letter writing continued. In fact, just last week, something happened when I was setting up my small workspace in the new house. I was carefully putting her last few letters in my letter organizer when Nikita happened to stroll by. I showed her some of the letters and she justifiably marveled at the beautiful handwriting.

Well, guess what? I met up with Madhuri and Rupesh for dinner this evening. The board meeting scheduled in San Francisco offered this opportunity.

I never quite told you what makes fountain pens come to life, did I? Well, that is where Madhuri’s expertise comes in. Paper and ink. I am always frustrated by the quality of paper in the USA. Got some great tips on how to choose paper and some good brands from Japan from her.

You all think I am nuts that I have over 100 fountain pens? Get this – she has 65 different colors of ink!! I have only 8) I learnt a lot about the chemistry and quality of inks from her. I even picked up some new terms like “sheening” and “pooling”. She had brought a few different varieties of paper to demonstrate her points to me.

Incredible evening for me!

25 June 2022

I have a new moniker!!

We had settled down for lunch with our friends after docking the boat in Fish Tales. Suddenly, Sharmila thought she spotted something. Or rather, somebody.

“Isn’t that Antara?” she asked.

I had watched the kid playing in the sand but had not noticed his parents. After Sharmila pointed out, I realized that the kid’s mom was none other than Antara. It took me a second to recognize her behind her shades. Went down to meet them and then Milind (he was trying to get a table for his family) came by too.

Back at our table, explaining how I knew Antara was bit of an interesting moment. Antara, you see, grew up in the same house as I did in Durgapur! After we left that house and moved to a new one, her parents had moved in to what used to be our house.

Later I had found out that my mom was her teacher in primary school and that at some point of time, my brother was her sister’s math tutor! By the way, I had never met Antara when I was in India!

And we ran into each other on Lake Lanier at Fish Tales!

“So, do you remember me?”, I asked the young kid. (He had seen me a couple of times before)

“Yes. Red-motorcyle uncle!”

It so reminded me of my Durgapur days. When we would often refer to uncles by their vehicle make or color – “Rajdoot motorcycle kaku” or “Sobuj Lambretta kaku” !!!

Well, (other than “Rajib”) I have often been called “Raj” or “Roy” or sometimes even “Hey You!”. Now I have a new sobriquet!

I kinda like it.

It is a pity my motorbike is red no more!

18 June 2022

My dad would have been very proud of this gentleman

Sumanjit and I went to high school together for a couple of years – 11th and 12th grade. That was back in 1985. And indeed, that was the last time I saw him.

Over the years, we have kept up over the phone – certainly on his birthdays. But inspite of my quarterly trips to India, never quite managed to meet him. One of the reasons is that he is a very successful IPS officer. (For the Indian Civil Services-ly challenged – that is the Indian Police Services – the bureaucracy for law and order ). And he is a DIG – which makes him a top bureaucrat.

Full credit goes to him for making the time to come and see me in my hotel a few hours before we headed out for the US.

Over a few cups of cappuccino with our better halves, I was explaining to my wife about how I was waiting for him at the hotel entrance and his retinue pulled up with all the flashing lights and all that. As the jeep stopped, his security detail jumped out before he and his wife could step out.

That is something my dad would have given his right arm to see. He always wanted me to go to the Civil Services.

Boro hoy-e IAS officer hobey”, he used to tell me. (“Do strive to become an administrative officer”)
Keno? IAS hoy-e ki hobey?” (“Why? What is the big deal?” I used to ask him)
Saamney pichhoney police ghurbey” (My dad would try to impress upon me the importance of the role by explaining the security detail that would be in front and behind me)

Not that it had any effect on me. But my sister used to be profoundly frightened.
Keno? Dadakey dhhorbey?” (She thought all those security guards would be trying to capture me!!)

My dad would have been really really proud of me that even if I did not become an officer, at least I rubbed shoulders with a friend who was one. I am sure he would have been content living vicariously thru Sumanjit.

Meanwhile, all the hotel staff was wondering what was going on. Now, I stay in this hotel every three months. I happen to have made friends with everybody – from the front desk to the chef to the bartender and you name it. You can imagine the combined sigh of relief they had when they saw Sumanjit get out and proceed to give me a hug!

We were laughing over all this with our wives when Sumanjit told me a rather funny narrative. The narrative is that in the Indian context if a cop car pulls over in front of your house – especially one that has flashing lights – everybody in the neighborhood comes out with curiosity to understand what is going on. And then if the cops leave without you, your social stock immediately goes up! “Dada, aapnar bondhu-ke boley eta ektu korey deben?” (“Can you please pull some strings with your friend to get this thing done?”)

What is amazing about Sumanjit – and this would have endeared him to my dad even more – is his humility. For everything he has done and all the power, he could not care less. Still has remained the same human being I remember. Shashwati (his wife) was even worried that their retinue might be taking up too much space in front of the hotel!

It was a wonderful evening. Would not have been possible without the effort from him.

As an additional bonus, before he left, his son came by and that is a whole story for another day. Never met a person that young and that well balanced in life. We agreed to have a few Zoom calls after I reach the USA.

Thank you Sumanjit and Shashwati for your effort. Let’s do a trip together in India sometime as we promised!

16 June 2022

Munna-di!!

Munnadi was our neighbor since 1979 December. I left home in 1983 July. So, it was a short three and a half years I got to know her. After that, it mostly kept up with her thru other neighbors. About 25 years back, I had managed to meet her and her two sons. Since I had some free time this evening and it had been already 25 years, I decided to spring a surprise on her and her sons. Unfortunately, I missed her younger son Debarpan this time. And I could not even talk with Debarghya (her elder son) about mirrorless cameras. (She gets mad if we start talking about photography).

It was really great exchanging notes about the updates of all our neighbors.

16 June 2022

Another crazy intersection point

“Can you help me locate somebody from Durgapur?” asked Surojit – my friend from Atlanta.
This was about 3 years or so back.
“Who is it?”
“Well, his name is Bappi.”
“How do you know him?”
“He used to play the keyboards with us when we sang.”

A few minutes later, I had sorted it out. Surojit and his (now) wife Apala went to RE College (now NIT) Durgapur. Both of them were into music. Apala sang. So did Surojit – and played the tabla. And they still do. Bappi was somebody who lived in REC campus and was an excellent keyboard player. Bappi’s father was a REC staff member. Bappi himself is my age – which means much older to Surojit and Apala.

“He was a great player and an even greater person. But I have lost all contacts with him. I thought since you are from Durgapur and know so many people, you might be able to track him down”.
“Well, I will try”

My initial attempts came a cropper. And then in one of my India trips, I met Indranil Sengupta. And discussed this hitherto unknown person to me – Bappi. By the time I was on my flight back, I had a phone number from Indranil.

I did not pass it on to Surojit immediately. I needed to make sure I had the right person.

So, from a transit airport (I forget which one it was), I called up that number.

“Are you Bappi?”
“Who is this?”
“You will not know me. I am a friend of an old friend of yours – Surojit”
“Which Surojit?”. That is an understandable question since Surojit is not an exactly uncommon name in Bengal.
“Well, this is going to be tricky. But let me try. You play the keyboards, right?”
“Yes”
“Well, you played with Surojit and Apala. They used to study in REC.”
“Oh! Apala-Surojit? Where are they?”
“Atlanta, US”
“Where are you?”
“Also Atlanta”
“Are you calling from Atlanta?”
“No, I am on my way back from India. But I will pass on your number to Surojit – so he can call you directly.”
And that is how I was able to put the two (well, three) old friends together.

And started a new friendship myself. I kept up with Bappi from that day. He went thru a fairly lean time during Covid – work wise and health wise – and we stayed in touch. I always promised to make some time for him during my trips and finally, I was able to do so this time.

It was great to know about his life history. His successes, his rough patches and then his bounce backs.

But the greatest surprise was yet to come. I was talking about his family and then the topic of his wife came up…

“Is your wife from Durgapur too?”
“No. Monimala is from Burdwan.”
“Where in Burdwan?”
“Debipur”
“Oh! Not Burdwan city. Burdwan District.”
“Yes”
“Gram Debipur”?
“Yes”
“Which para?”
“Huh?”
“Which house?”
“ I do not know how to exactly locate it”
“Can I talk to your wife?”

“Monimala? This is Rajib”
“Oh! Bappi has told me about you”
“Are you from Debipur?”
“Yes”
“Which house”
“Kundu bari”
“Wait, Kundu bari? Where is that?”
“Near Buro Shib tala”
That took me a few moments to remember exactly where that was.

“Hmmm, that is near the school, right?”
“Yes”
“Do you know the Panjas?”
“Sure. Nobokumar”
“Yes. And Tarapada?”
“Yes”
“He is my grandmother’s brother”
“Really?”
“Yes. Do you know Pnachu Roy’s house?”
“Yes. They are in the other para”
“Yes. Do you know the two huts next to his house?”
“Yes”
“That was our house. One hut was my uncle’s and the other one my dad’s. I was born in the smaller hut myself”

You can only imagine the excitement! I am fairly sure – given the age group – I must have seen Monimala in one of the two Durga Pujas in the village when we visited every year. There were not too many places for young kids to hang around in a small village. Just never knew that I would be talking to her some 40-50 years later.

It did not end there.

“So, how did you come to Durgapur? Thru marriage?”
“No, my dad moved us to Durgapur”. That sounded just like what had happened to me.
“Where did you live?”
“Rahimpath”
“Where in Rahimpath?”
“Quarter number 10/10”
“Hmm… two streets over, my uncle used to live. I used to go there 3–4 times a week. It was 14/28”
“What was his name?”
“Prasanta Pan”
“Dola Pan’s dad?”
“YES!! Dola is my cousin”
“And she was my classmate. We went to school together. I used to go to her house too!!
“
Wow! What is the chance of that? Looks like I must have met her in Durgapur too!!

That is one great sequence of intersection points. And it all started with somebody looking to create his own intersection point!!!

Next time, I have to meet Bappi’s whole family. I am sure there are some great stories from Debipur and Rahimpath we can go over.

11 May 2022

Chance meeting – the kind that makes trips to unknown lands memorable

“Solo tourist, huh?”

I heard the voice from behind me.

Having just reached Wadi Al-Mujib, I was measuring up the river and the prospect of having to wade thru it all the way. I had sort of expected it to be like Wadi Shab in Oman where it was a dry hike till you reached the lake. This one, however, I realized, was going to be completely in the water. I also realized the wisdom in the urging of the guy at the gate to keep my bag behind and change into water shoes. Which, I had duly ignored.

Looking behind, I saw the young lady looking at me. There was nobody nearby. I deduced she was addressing me.

“Solo tourist, it is!”, I replied.

“Want to hike together?”
“Why not? That way, you can pull me up from the water when I fall down.”
“Do you know swimming?”
“Not enough to save my life with a backpack on my back”
“I do not know swimming”.
“Okay. Let’s go as far as we can together. I will not make it to the end. I do not want the bag to get wet. This will help in taking pictures of each other too”.
“Deal”

And with that we started exploring the canyon valley while wading thru the water. The views were simply breathtaking (you can see them in prior posts). We stopped often to take pictures of the views and of each other on our respective phones. I was not carrying my DSLR (which was a good thing – it would have gotten wet). I also realized that I really need the latest version of the iPhone.

“Where are you visiting from?”, I asked her during the wade.
“Sudan”
“Oh! I do not think I know anybody else from Sudan. Khartoum?”
“Yes”
“What do you do there?”
“I work with the United Nations”
“Nice. By the way, what is your name?”
“Besma”

I am not terribly good at foreign names . So, I asked her to spell it for me.
“Well, It is written ‘Basma’. But it is pronounced B-E-S-M-A”
“Got it. In India, there is a similar sounding name – Reshma”.
“What’s your name?”
“Rajib”
“Arabic?”
“No. That would be Rajab. Mine is with ‘i’. R-A-J-I-B. Rajib Roy”
“Wait. Roy from India. Are you related to the famous Roy family in Delhi?”
“I have no idea which family you are talking about, but I assure you that I am not related to anybody famous. And how do you know about a Roy family in Delhi?”
“I have been to Delhi. In fact, twice to India”
“For Untied Nations?”
“No. With my ex-inlaws. For their business.”
“Wait. Ex-in-laws. Ok. Now I get it.”
“Get what?”

I laughed and told her how I am terrible in computing relationships especially when a divorce is involved. I told her the funny story from 1996 when my colleague Stacy had mentioned “my ex-stepfather” and it had taken me a full 10 minutes to unentangle how you can put an “ex” and a “step” in the same relationship!

Anyways, thru the rest of the trip, I got to know about all the exciting places Basma has been to (and she has been to a lot of countries). She seemed very free spirited. I was especially impressed by how much of local knowledge and culture she has learnt in all those trips.

At some point, the water became too deep for me to save the backpack. We exchanged contacts and I turned back.

Reflecting back, one thing I learnt from her is that I need to make a lot more of these trips to different parts of the world. Especially lesser known parts of the world. There is so much to learn from people you meet randomly on the road from so many different backgrounds.

The world is so big and beautiful. And the first thing we do is put four walls around us and stay put there!

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11 May 2022

An old tradition – relived

One of the best ways to learn about a new country, I have found, is to make friends with a local driver and then keep him or her for the whole trip. Usually that relationship starts from the trip from the airport to the hotel or the first trip out of the hotel.

There have been some incredible learnings on the way. Like Jorge taking us to a completely desolate waterfall that no visitors visit. Or Giacomo taking us to a beautiful spot for lunch when I asked him “Where would you take your girlfriend to that is not visited by tourists?” in Italy. There was I Wayan in Indonesian, Juan in Chile, Henrique in Azores, Mohammad in Oman…. I have about 15 such great friends in my list. What always started with strangers on a drive invariably continued as a lifelong friendship. Of course, the annual birthday calls are always there to remind each other of the great memories I still cherish.

This trip, I made – hopefully another life long – relationship with Mahmoud. He picked me up from the airport and we hit it off immediately. He was, of course, extremely knowledgeable about the whole place. But more importantly, he got it very quickly that I was more interested in places of natural beauty and far less in historical importance.

We got to know about each others’ families. I was very excited to hear about his two sons’ career plans. Hopefully, they will all visit us in the US sometime.

Meanwhile, I cannot wait to go back to Jordan with my family and meet his family!

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3 May 2022

Went to meet an old friend

Ashley and we got to know each other during the Covid days when we would drive to Pig Tales and sit by the lake side. Most of the time, she would get us the food and drink. We got to know her and her family very well. She was going to get married to Mark in October that year if I remember correctly. I still have the picture of the wedding dress she had picked and sent to Sharmila and myself.

Lot has changed since the Covid days. She is now happily married to Mark. The sons have grown up so much. And she works now in Twisted Oar. Which is where we drove the boat to meet her!