A character in search of the author

I missed a beat. I had started off sending these mailers out with the intention of maintaining a rhythm of an update per quarter. I had been to Calcutta last December and was en route to Pune on New Year’s Eve and managed to reach my apartment just in time to ring in the New Year. The apartment that got burgled last month – but that is another story.

So having reached Pune just before the deadline I had set myself, I was too tired to live up to it. By the way, I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. That’s a quote. I was also had this niggling doubt at the back of my mind. Well, two of them, actually.

Was I sending these out because I needed to say something or had I some thing to say? Cliché – but nevertheless relevant. The other thought was some feedback on whether it is prudent being so forthright, in these mailers. Emails do have a way in getting forwarded. But what would I lose if these get forwarded to the “wrong” people. Besides losing the job, that is? What does that mean? Well that is another story.

What were on my mind really were two observations or questions if you may, that stuck on from the brief time that Deep and I spent with Br. Mac. After hearing us yap away for a while he remarked that it was as if we were almost afraid of ourselves; that we were almost trying to convince ourselves that the life we were leading was really great. Really. Hmm.

The other one was that a lot of his students studiously avoid meeting him if they feel they have not been “successful” in life. Conversely, they showed up only when they had “success” to share. May be. I am not sure that that was what I was doing when I met him. I had reached out to him when the chips were really down. I owe it to him to have been able to rescue myself when I was really down. That was a long time back and is really another story.

My going to Narendrapur for a college reunion – the first one since I left college in 1983 – was definitely to face a ghost from the past. It was almost as if to assert that I have done better that what you thought I could. Can you believe it? It took me almost a quarter of a century to go back.

I had stayed off because I didn’t want to be embarrassingly remembered of shouted at as a trespasser. (That’s a quote too.) Some of you reading this email will know what I am saying and smile – it is enough to tell the others that it is not relevant any more. It actually is another story.

The story currently being played out is turning out to be a cliff hanger. It is filled with clues and no one is being able to figure out whether it is one of a dead man walking, or the unfolding of a chronicle of a death foretold, or whether it is a whodunit. I am out looking for the author so that I can replace him and write my own story before it gets out of control. May be I know the author already and am trying to screw my courage to the sticking place (Oh! ain’t he weary of these quotes) and empower myself.

Time is running out. To indulge in another quote before I send this out, “We will not end the nightmare, we’ll only explain it, because this is the Twilight Zone” … that’s from Five Characters in Search of an Exit.

Pakistani pizza, Indian foodie, German menu

I got off the bus at Wiesloch and noticed that another person with brown skin had got off too. He saw me too and we took a few steps to be closer. I asked “Indian?”; “Pakistani?” was his question. This was November 1999. The man my country blamed for the Kargil war had just come to power in his country. But we were in a different continent. People around us spoke a different language, had a different faith, and looked different. In this context we were rather pleased to have met.


This guy spoke a few words in Bengali, good German and fluent Urdu. I had found someone to communicate with in a remote town where the only English you could hear would be in CNN. We introduced each other, I in my bad Hindi and he in Urdu. I came to know that he was a pizza baker by profession. He had come down to Wiesloch to meet his ex-boss, a Pakistani like himself who owned and ran a pizzeria.


There were three delivery boys. One of them was another Pakistani who used to practice medicine and had fled homeland when Zia had come to power. Dr. Waseem Ahmed now sold medical insurance policies by day and delivered pizzas at night in a Mercedes. The three of them adopted me for the rest or the three weeks I was in Germany.


Dr. Ahmed took me along with him in his Mercedes on the pizza delivery rounds. I saw rural Germany by night, went into the only psychiatric facility I have visited in my life, and had long chats about how our governments fought but the man on the ground on either side of the border had no mutual quarrel.


I am not sure that an Indian in India or a Pakistani in Pakistan would always feel the same way. I am sure if the two countries went to war then I would not be very compassionate about the common Pakistani. But when a dictator beats up lawyers and journalists, the average Indian would wish the average Pakistani all the best. But whatever be the situation the typical Indian would have nothing but the worst of intentions for the entity in power in Pakistan.


I suspect that sentiments would be pretty much the same on the other side of the border. The general mass of people on the average would waver between bouts of sympathy to blind rage and animosity. There would also always be some people with the strong belief in the brotherhood of mankind. They would deny the apathy and the hatred. God bless them, they are like the doctors without borders.


There would also be folks who for what ever reason, or lack of it, always scheme to annihilate each other. It doesn’t matter to them that we share similar heritages, languages, and gene pools. They must kill.


So what do I make of all this? Where does it leave me? Search me. But I will always remember three Pakistanis who accepted me, where happy to see me, took care of me in that foreign village where Chinese food had to be ordered from a German menu.

Incredible India – three pieces of the mosaic

The tagline “Incredible India” has been used all over by everyone. I decided to use it instead of reinventing another less powerful one. I am sure you will have your own perspective of incredible India. Here are three of mine.

New Delhi has the India Gate; Mumbai the Gateway to India. But all over the country there are numerous gateways belonging to varied ethnic schools of architecture each opening into a piece of the mosaic that make up Incredible India. This one leads you to Chitkul, the last inhabited village in the Sangla-Baspa valley, 35 km from the Indo-Tibetian border. Chitkul has been around over a couple of centuries.

It has been a long journey from the docks of Lothal and Rangpur, belonging to the Harappan era. We don’t know what the religion was those days; but since then four religions have been born in the country. The Buddhists made religion practical by inventing the prayer wheel that made it possible for you to pray while at work. The water powered prayer wheel was the next logical step. Automated prayers for world peace; aided by mother nature, sponsored by Incredible India.

The Sunderbans – not quite Waterworld, but almost. Here mangroves help land to mesh into water. It’s almost difficult to know for sure when you stepped off land into the water. So what do you do for road signs when land itself disappears? Especially when rivers cross to each other on their way to the sea.You put up road or rather river signs. Left turn for the Gomti river, take the right turn for the Pirkhali village. And hey, no parking, keep off the land, the Royal Bengal tiger is less forgiving than that gardener was when you didn’t keep off the grass. Incredible India.

New Sheriff in Town

I had promised in my last quarter mailer that I would try to come back with a “things I built” theme this time. Well there has been a setback. A number of threads that ran through whatever I did through out the last quarter. All of these were in the corporate world. All of them ate into whatever energy that I have to shield my personal life from the former.

Early in July I was in Calcutta on a reconnaissance trip. I had dragged my boss along and got him to introduce me to the powers that be in the Calcutta circuit of my organization. The idea was to relocate soon and set up PeopleSoft operations of our practice group in Calcutta. What was a matter of discomfort was that I would need to poach on my earlier organization.

The first whiff of smoke came in the form of a piece of news that my boss shared with me. There was a proposed change in the senior leadership. There was to be a new sheriff in town, the deputies were unsure of what that would mean. The signs of these change had there for a long time – as you can always discover on hind sight.

The drama is still being playing out over the last three months with the cloaks-and-daggers, smoke-and-mirror and the palace politics that a lot of these internal takeovers generally bring in with them. The final curtain has not come down yet. I suspect that in the game of snakes and ladders in progress, some lead actors will remove themselves from the play.

At this point I can not but remember something in The Economist “Company bosses are being fired in record numbers nowadays. In some ways this is not the disaster for them that being axed is for the rest of humanity…Yet the psychological blow caused by dismissal may be far more devastating to the formerly lionized – now unwanted – corporate leader than it is to mere mortals.”

So what is in it for me? “Thou shall not go to Calcutta”. KB had not cared whether I would go to poach or omelet but this has thrown me off my spin. The axis has changed. I made two trips to Chennai over two weeks in September.

One of them needed me to pass through Bangalore on September 12. What is this with September 12 and Bangalore? I have walked in the city each year that day over the last seven years. The other important date was my birth day.

September 21 is a strange date. I know of three other people who were born on the same date in different years. The name one (born a year later then me) is the same as another who was born on the same day I was. I do not know almost any thing of the other person. I went for lunch with the third person in Chennai. Then, two of my friends and colleagues had daughters born to them on that date and both these babies couldn’t survive the first few hours/days. Now my friend Balvinder has lost his mother on September 21.

To move on to a more cheerful subject would be my brush with the CMMI certification process. I was thrust into the role of a “practice champion” to ensure that we survived the assessment audit. The team slogged for three months to earn the sobriquet “brilliant project”. Two directors and I were given a shirt each bearing the company logo and CMMI initiative for all the hard work.

So, what next? I have lost count of the number of times I have asked myself that question. Some people live in the past, some as if there is no tomorrow, it seems my fate is always to hope for a better future. Have you heard “High Hopes” by Frank Sinatra? I am listening to it as I am typing this. It goes like this: “Just what makes that little old ant / Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant / Anyone knows an ant, cant / Move a rubber tree plant # But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes/ He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes # So any time your gettin’ low ‘stead of lettin’ go / Just remember that ant/ Oops there goes another rubber tree plant”

(Note: You have received this email because you are in my address book and distribution list. Please feel free to ask me stop bugging you with these quarterly mailers. If you are among the 79 who have received such an update for the first time then you might want to check out the last four at http://thoughtzine.com under the “Mailers” category. Some have told me they have enjoyed reading them – I hope you will too.)

Home sweet home

There is a possibility of me moving back to Calcutta for about a year and a half or so. Knowledge of the plan has been, but naturally, triggering off lot of questions on whether I am happy to be heading back home. Well, the question is not an easy one for me. Answering these also bring back some memories.


I was a day scholar in school. The boarders used to glow with happiness at the end of each term at the thought of returning home. The “home sweet home” inscription had a special meaning for them. That was when I used to live in Asansol.


I wasn’t raised in Calcutta it seems everyone expects me to think of it as “home”. I am not so sure. “I am I said” by Neil Diamond goes like this: L.A.’s fine, the sun shines most the time. And the feeling is ‘lay back’…  Well I’m New York City born and raised.  But nowadays, I’m lost between two shores. L.A.’s fine, but it ain’t home. New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.


I visited Sumit in October 2006 at San Jose. He and his wife drove me to Palo Alto to watch “Aniket“. It is about a not-so-fictitious couple attempting a defection back to the “homeland”. They try to fit in and enjoy the best of both worlds but eventually realize that Calcutta has moved on. It survives without their presence anyway. The couple has no option but to rejoin the lost tribe of the Bay Area Bengalis.


That evening over dinner and the drive back our conversation touched upon the subject of what the definition of “home” is. In the “Death of the Hired Man” he says “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” To which she rebukes “I should have called it Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”


If you have a reservation in a hotel or a guest house they have to take you in. But that does not make it a home. Nirmal in The Hungry Tide says something like “Home is a place that you refuse to be driven out from”. But for the nomad like me, his wife Nilima’s words “Home is a place where I can make a cup of tea to my liking” is better.


In the last eight and a half years I have lived in Bangalore for forty two months, a bit over twenty one months in Calcutta, eleven and a half months over various locations in the US, close to twenty Pune, two in Mumbai, two in Noida, about one in Germany and three weeks in Canada. I think I understand Shaw’s feeling “I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad.” But then I also remember the feeling of homecoming that my wife and I had once when we returned to the project accommodation at Bangalore after a week long trip to Calcutta.


When I mentioned this to a colleague of mine I was surprised to find that I had struck a chord somewhere. He told me about this town in Maharashtra where he had spent the early years of his career. It is a small town where he does not have any childhood memories, assets, or relatives. The few friends who have not moved on are the only familiar faces he gets to meet when he visits the town. But each time he does so he is happy to be back home.


Someone called Tad Williams wrote “Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.”


I think I will buy that. To lighten up the mood I will end with a more frivolous quote. “For a lot of people, the weekly paycheck is “take-home pay” because home is the only place they can afford to go with it.”