Bloodshed on French National Day – By Shombit Sengupta

This is a passionate article written by my friend, SAGE author, painter, philosopher, business thought leader. I couldn’t help but publish it on my blog – Vivek

nice-promenade

Horror and shock struck me on switching the TV on at 6 this morning; a Jihadi terrorist was ramming a truck into a crowd of people celebrating 14 July, the French National Day in Nice, the paradisiacal sea beach. This ghastly act killed 84 innocent revelers, and injured hundreds of others including children. Just last week I was strolling on the promenade in the erstwhile French territory of Chandan Nagar near Kolkata where I love to take my French friends to remind them of their historic roots in India. My friend Mikael de la Fuente, Director of Alliance Francaise in Bangalore and I were reminiscing on the similarity of Chandan Nagar promenade in front of Dupliex Palace on the bank of the Ganges river to Promenade des Anglais in Nice on the blue Mediterranean Sea where terror struck last evening. 

Bloodshed reigned when Bastille was stormed on 14 July 1789 during the French Revolution to demolish the monarchy. Since then the French have upheld unity and human rights of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality of this historic day of 14 July annually. Last night Jihadi terrorism, in total contradiction to French values, raised its destructively powerful ideology by instigating a single man who was a French national of Tunisian descent to take a truck, plough through human beings and inhumanly shed blood on those who celebrate human justice. In the last 18 months France has suffered 3 major terror attacks.

As I’ve grown up in France, I can vouch for the supreme significance of 14 July as France was the world’s first country to have the revolution to form a republic. It seems France also started the disciplined military parade at Champs Elysees, the world famous avenue of Paris, for the first time in the world on its National Day, which other countries have since followed.  So all French people, irrespective of age, origin or political party, participate to bond in human relationship on this extraordinary day with beautiful fireworks across the country.

It is terrible to say this, but sending text messages to my many French friends to enquire after their safety and those of their family and loved ones after a terrorist attack, is almost becoming a ritual hell for me. A colleague and friend I’ve known since the last 36 years responded saying his sister lives in Nice, but fortunately she was watching the multi-coloured, out-of-the-box 14 July fireworks in the sky from her balcony, not on the promenade below. But between the fireworks, loud music and the gunshots it was very confusing at the initial stage; then there were screaming people running helter-skelter and dead bodies strewn on the promenade. You can just imagine, now is the peak holiday time in the South of France where French, other Europeans and holiday makers from all over the world become crazy to enjoy the sun, wind, sea, and beautiful festive evening on the Mediterranean coast in the French Riviera, particularly in Nice.

The beautiful French Riviera that the French call Cote d’Azur starts from the coastal village of Cerbere after the Spanish border, and stretches 548 km upto Monaco. This coastline has incomparable beauty in the world with different cultural nuances of different regions of France on left side and the blue ocean on the right. In fact if you stop every 50 kilometers on this coastline, you will enjoy different types of paradise. I often do this car incredible trip with friends from different countries. Just last month I was guiding a Bengali friend of mine about what he should enjoy from Nice to Monte Carlo. And in this beautiful place during a festive atmosphere is where blood from terrorism horror flowed.

Unconscious immigration of exclusion: From the sixties onwards, on the basis of human rights and requirement of workers, France opened up immigration from North Africa to non-Christian communities. The largest Muslim population in Europe is in France today. France is an extremely secular country, the President never takes an oath using the Bible. There is no religious symbol in any French state institution. Being a country of liberty, fraternity, equality, the French did not want to interfere in the cultural values of these immigrants and provided them independent, multi-storied housing isolated from mainstream French society. I have always felt that this is what has distanced these immigrants from French societal culture. These immigrants also put in no effort at all to be part of mainstream French culture. But now, the third generation immigrants have been born and brought up in France, attending French schools although they largely continue to live in their North African culture. These 2nd and 3rd generations of the original immigrants are French people who have created their own territory within French society in such a way that they have even distorted the French language and have a mixed vocabulary with their Arabic language. Exclusion from mainstream French culture is posing to be a big rift now. There are so many of these immigrant habitation areas and in most of them French Caucasians are not welcome. I have always observed that their hate for the Caucasian French people is quite disgraceful. India was colonized by the British for 200 years, but Indians have never had hate feelings towards the British till today, unlike the North African immigrants who hate the French.

I must testify, being an immigrant French national, that the French society has never ever neglected me on my art and painting, my way of living and in driving my design business which is one of the most recognized design hot shops in Paris. So I have always had this question of why there is this separation between the North African Muslim society and French Catholic society. I don’t know where the solution will come from so that both sides start to feel inclusive towards each other.

Today I very often ask my French friends to avoid being in crowded places for the moment. But they tell me that they will not be cowards nor give up their freedom to the Jihadi terrorists. The French Government has also declared this is a war against terror. Today the French Prime Minister has said that we have to learn how to live with terrorism. But is Jihadi terrorism not a one sided new form of guerrilla attack with varied ways to kill innocent people? My question is, when we are dealing with radicalized individuals using terror tactics, where is the end of the war? I have still not found the answer.   

The advantage of an inclusive society: While being of Indian origin, I have to admire the outstanding inclusive society that India is, being the world’s most heterogeneous country. I am not saying India is terrorist free. Of course there are many kinds of divisions here, between poor and rich, among different castes and different professions. But India does not have the character of exclusion, from human rights, to religions and social factors. So I can say the inclusive character could be the only solution to get rid of this kind of horrible terrorism. If the inclusive factor is created, community people can inform faster than any detective branch can about where Jihadism is growing. So I can only wish that France, my country of adoption, should look for inclusion and from the initial stage, detect the home grown terrorists and take action immediately before the blood comes.  

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Mothers, their day and a letter to my daughter on Father’s day

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On the eve of Father’s Day, before I leave, my daughter’s gift to me. 

On Mother’s Day I saw a video posted in my school group. Before I could see the video I saw messages praising it and ‘how touching it was’. I was curious about it.

I saw it and I was touched by it. But the difference was in the way it touched me vs the way it touched others. Everyone raved about the mother, her strife and her repeated phrase, NO CHARGE. I was touched that the young boy was reduced to tears. And I was touched that he cried when he shouldn’t have.

The gist of the video is as follows:

A young boy goes up to his mother and hands over a ‘bill’ for services rendered. These are mundane things like taking the garbage out, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes etc.

The mother in turn produces her own bill of services rendered and hands it over to the son.

For carrying him for 9 months or more – no charge

For staying up nights when he was unwell – no charge

For all the costs of bringing him up and wiping your nose – no charge

Etc.

The child looks at this list of things the mother has done for him and is reduced to tears. The mother smiles at her triumph, the child continues to cry. And I am moved even today at his tears. I was angry at the mother’s attitude. I spoke my mind out and those that heard me thought I spoke of some bitter personal experience. But the truth is today I am a father and it’s the father in me that felt angry. I thought it best to put my thoughts in words to express to my daughter what I want to say.

I am a father and I have a daughter who means the world to me. On Father’s Day this is what I would say to her.

 

Father’s Day 2016

Dear Tish,

Subject: I owe you so much

In life you hear others say that they owe many things to their parents. I want you to know you owe me nothing. Here are some of the things that you will hear and here is what I think about these issues. Your mother too contributed and perhaps her contribution is greater than mine. Nevertheless, this is what I remember and this is what I feel.

The service: staying up late at night when you cried and couldn’t sleep; you were not even able to sit up on your own.

My payment: when you fell asleep in my arms, I would hold you close to me so that you would feel secure. When I viewed your tiny eyes closed and lost in sleep, I felt complete and I felt warm. For this feeling I owe you.

The service: trying to feed you when you refused to eat. You would refuse food and almost needed to be force-fed. Sometimes I had to dance, sometimes I had to walk around the house with you in my arms.

My payment: when you ate and smiled, I knew you were content. The smile made me forget everything, the pain of the day gone by, the trials at work and the trudge home. My fatigue left me and I felt alive. For this I owe you.

The service: changing your diapers when you soiled them. You would cry until the diaper was removed. It didn’t matter what I was doing, sometimes even when I was eating. I would let go of my food to first tend to you. I did but a fraction of what your mother did, but I did too.

My payment: when I undid the diaper, your crying would reduce to a whimper. I would gently clean you with warm water and you would stop crying. As I put on a new diaper you smiled and gurgled. You would raise your arms asking me to hug you and hold you. And when I did, you gave me the warmest hug I could ever get. For this I owe you.

The service: arriving home from work, tired, exhausted and then you asking me to take you to the park to play on the swing. I didn’t want to and tried to convince you to go the next day but you held my hand saying “please let’s go dad”.

My payment: the feeling of being led by your small hands is still the best feeling in the world. In the park you would lead me to the swing and I would help you get on to it. I would be careful in pushing you and you always wanted me to push you higher. Your laughter would echo in the park. My tired shoulders would no longer feel the day’s burden. I smiled like the world belonged to me. You would hold my hand and proudly walk me through the park. For the feeling of being the king of the world, I owe you.

Today you are a young lady and at every turn in life you make me proud. I am proud when I take you to school, proud when I pick you up, proud to attend the parent teacher meeting and proud to be known as your father. How then can I ever repay you in this life or the next?

I want you to live your life not be a prisoner of my dreams. You should make and live your own dreams.

I want you to know life, the world and experience all of it yourself. I don’t want you to know it second-hand from me.

When you make mistakes, and I know you will, you should know your father is there for you. I will always be your safety net to catch you if you fall. I will not be the shackles that bind you.

I will not remind you of anything I did for you because I did out of love not out of expectation that it will be one day repaid.

When you do cherish what I did, I do and what I will do, I will acknowledge them with a smile on my lips and tears in my eyes. The smile is for seeing you happy and the tears are because I am happy. But even if you don’t I will still love you because that’s what fathers should always do.

On this day and forever, I want you to know that your father loves you. I don’t know about other father’s but I am sure they are this way too.

With love and gratitude,

Your dad

Here is my gift to you this day https://youtu.be/ATgzmllrDdY

 

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My radio interview in the USA – 2016

Those of you who heard my interview in 2014 would be familiar with Narendra Sheth who has the longest running Indian Radio show in the USA. It is called GeetMala. I was in the USA last month and Narendra asked me to stop by for another interview.

Here is the entire interview.

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The Pushy Indian

A great place to find pushers

A great place to find pushers

You have seen them everywhere but I don’t think you are conscious of them.

Some would say the Nadellas, the Nadars, the Murthys, the Modis are perhaps examples of pushy Indians. In many ways they pushed the boundaries of achievement. But this is not the pushy Indian I refer to.

Think of a crowded place, any crowded place. Picture yourself standing at any given spot in this crowded place. This spot could be you standing in line, you standing waiting for someone, or something, or it could you even be searching for the right spot to stand in. I can guarantee that every 10 seconds or so, you will be physically moved from the spot simply because someone has pushed past you or is attempting to walk through you (like you were a ghost). Chances are that the person doing this is an Indian. This is the Pushy Indian I am talking about.

I don’t understand this Indian or what makes this person tick.

I am standing in my spot. I have mass. I breathe. I am alive. I am an individual. I am not disturbing anyone. My hands are protecting my wallet or my genitals depending on the crowd I am in. So why am I being pushed and shoved like I am some paper in the wind? I have stared in disbelief at the amount I have been shoved around and on the odd occasion I have even stopped the person and spoken my mind. Over the years I have evolved a theory about this pushing and shoving and classified the “pushers”.

The “I am so busy” pusher: this is generally a male ranging in ages from 10 years to about 40. Some of the 40 years behave like 10 year-olds but that’s a whole different story. This type of pusher generally thinks any standing or even mobile person in front of him is a ghost or is a door that needs to be pushed open. He is adept at using his hands and doesn’t hesitate to use them to push you or even to rest them on your shoulder. I have also encountered the more sophisticated one where the shoulder is put to use, sometimes causing pain to the pushed. The pusher is generally unconscious of his act and if you stopped him, as I often have, and asked him where the fire was, he would look at you blankly! This pusher, I suspect is on some sort of drug or medication that is causing temporary amnesia coupled with some sort of blindness and hallucinations. He could also be suffering from a brain disorder that makes him think human beings are doors, ghosts, nobodies or simply objects that need to be pushed and or shoved. He strides with purpose and I have often wondered at the purpose. The classier version of this pusher is the one dressed in a suit, tie, and swinging a brief case. When spotted, I tend to focus on the bag in case it threatens to tango with some part of my body. My conclusion is that he is in a hurry to get nowhere but has a subconscious desire to project that he has somewhere to go. My sample survey isn’t large enough since I tend to lose my cool if I am shoved. I rarely get the opportunity to politely ask questions.

The “please move on” pusher: this is generally an elderly person man or woman between the ages of 40 and 80; provided the 80-year olds can still walk. The 40-year olds I think are wannabe 80-year olds. They are usually found hanging around narrow entrances like ones leading to a mall, to a movie theater or any narrow entrance that has a sea of people trying to squeeze through, one at a time. This pusher will use hands akin to pushing a stalled vehicle. They have no qualms of using both. They sometimes stand erect and try to push with their body (I promise you this is the most unsettling way to push). At other times, they choose to use you as a walking stick or a crutch, clinging on to your arm or even worse pressing down on your shoulder. There are many that are genuinely in need of assistance and I am sympathetic towards them. These individuals ask for assistance. But the vast majority is clearly oblivious about you. They believe it is their birthright to push, shove, cling and generally treat you like furniture. When queried, I have received blank stares and some more militant ones asking me to “please move on”. I have stepped aside and showed them the sea before me and I sensed they wanted me to join their tribe and push forward. Given my sense and sensibility, I refuse, always. Whenever I have verbally responded to the “move on” jibe I have received sullen looks, “at least try” and even worse have been ‘looked through’ like I was made of glass. I really hate being treated like I am made of glass.

The “no contacts pusher”: this is by far the most interesting (read annoying) type I have encountered. At one point in time I thought they only inhabited North India but I have found them to be scattered all across the country. The one place I found them to be near extinction is in the hills of Mussoorie. The “no contacts pusher” has a lot of commonality with other types of pushers. They seem to think you don’t exist and or even if you do, you are of no consequence. There is little or no physical contact with you and yet they will surge past you in the blink of an eye.

If you have traveled via public transport you will recognize them. Imagine the New Delhi Railway station where bags are being placed in a security scanner. You are standing in a short queue waiting to place your bag when suddenly a bag appears from your blind side and is thrust ahead of yours on the conveyor belt. You just spotted a ‘no contacts pusher’. I have stopped and stared at the individual and have been amazed at the lack of eye contact or the feigning ‘innocence’ at the act. I try to forget them by reconciling to the fact that they are village dwellers used to pushing and not as sophisticated as ‘city dwellers’. But then the city dwellers are no less.

As luck would have it I tend to travel more by air than by rail these days. At airport security I have found that while I am busy reaching for a tray to place my laptop in, an educated city dweller has yanked a tray from another stack, surged ahead of me and planted himself in front of me. I am again befuddled. He refuses to look in my direction and busies himself unloading his laptop and then thrusting it on to the conveyor belt. The characteristic “I can’t see you” look remains. Here I have no real rationale on why he would do this. Why is it that the person can’t see I am ahead of him in the queue? What is it that propels him to go ahead and what does he achieve by his action?

The other area I see the no contact pusher’s tribe growing is on New Delhi roads. Think of any perfect road where traffic in opposite directions is divided by a two-feet thick divider. You want to cruise along your side of the road thinking you are safe when suddenly you see something coming at you. This could be an auto rickshaw, a motorcyclist and even an SUV. You are being asked to move from your trajectory to accommodate a person on the wrong side of the road. How ridiculous is that!!! I am tempted to stop the car and ask the driver if he could comment on why the authorities have placed a thick divider in the middle of the road and why a significant number of people choose to be on the other side of the divider? In the past, I have asked the question and not really received an answer. I have got back blank stares (“you don’t exist” types), smiles (sometimes sheepish), frowns (“what are you talking about?”) and rarely, an apology. I save my favourite barb for the ones driving expensive cars. I have often politely smiled at them and reminded them that they forgot to pick up their brains when they bought the car. I urge them to go back to the showroom and retrieve this priceless and most important accessory of their car. Most times the reaction is that of a 10-year-old being told about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity!

Picture yourself standing in line at a traffic signal. The light could be right next to you or some distance away. The key is that a divider doesn’t separate the opposite side of the road AND there isn’t any traffic coming past you. While you remain standing still, you sense a vehicle before you see it come from behind you and then race past on the wrong side of the road. Then another follows until there is a parallel line formed on the wrong side of the road! The traffic light turns green and your queue (the legitimate one) now starts inching forward. The illegitimate line suddenly starts moving towards you and wants to move into the space you occupy. It gets worse if there is traffic coming from the opposite side. You now start feeling like fruit in a hand juicer being gently squeezed. Try to stand your ground and you are most likely going to be threatened. I have usually inched forward ignoring the threats. The look in my eyes says it all and I keep my mouth shut. There have been times where I have parked my car in front of the car coming in from the opposite direction (wrong direction for the approaching car) and haven’t given room for the person to get back into the legitimate line. On more than one occasion I have even switched off my engine demonstrating my determination. In the end making the other person reverse and go back to the end of the legitimate line. I am not a proponent of road rage and rarely have I lost my temper on the road. That doesn’t mean one can turn the proverbial “other cheek” at such blatant abuse of public roads.

The most dangerous of them all of course is the pusher running traffic lights and or turning from the wrong lane. This one truly scares me. I have written about this in the past but I really can’t stress this enough. Jumping lights and turning from the wrong lanes are two acts that can cause grave harm to both the person in the act and innocents who follow rules. I just cannot imagine why someone would risk life and limb to get ahead by a few minutes.

I try to spot the Pushy Indian overseas and I come back disappointed. I rarely spot them in foreign lands. Their disciplined cousins are often found. I wonder if they are disciplined cousins or better evolved humans or worse, a species mutating in a foreign land? I think it is fear that has helped cause this mutation; fear of the law of the land. Either way the discipline is something every Indian would love to see in his own land.

PS: I dont have a gender bias. I have used the proverbial masculine instead of using he/she throughout this article. The he may please be read as he/she.

 

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The Women Beaters⎯for every woman in the world

The beast is best kept buried

The beast is best kept buried

There is a video doing the rounds whose title loosely translates to “Boys don’t cry” sub-title “But we should tell them that boys don’t make girls cry”. The video walks through a boy’s life and how he is constantly reminded, “boys don’t cry”. It ends with a shot of a young boy twisting the arm of a girl and the camera pans to the face of the girl. She is a young woman, battered, bruised and bleeding from the lips. Madhuri Dixit shows up with half a smile and says “perhaps we should teach boys that they don’t make girls cry.”

The video repulses me.

No it isn’t vulgar. It has a true social message. But somewhere deep inside it makes me so angry that the first time I watched it, I felt a horrible beast being let loose.

There is another video; a short movie. This is around the stoning to death of a woman accused of adultery in some foreign Islamic country. The woman is buried in the sand up to her waist. Her hands are tied to her sides and basically she is incapacitated. Her son, followed by the husband, throws the first stone and then a whole bunch of men hurl stones. With each stone she howls until so many rain on her that she bleeds to death.

I almost shouted at the friend who sent me this video. I felt horrible. I contrasted with what I had seen in this video with a popular Bollywood movie “Jab We Met” where the son is coming to terms that his mother loves someone else. The mother-son reconcile their differences.

The two videos haunt me. But I keep them buried deep inside. I don’t visit them because I feel myself emotionally vulnerable and so angry that I want to do something about it. In the video “Boys don’t cry” I once thought about what I would do if the girl who was hurting were my daughter.

What my mind came up with frightened me. I couldn’t believe there lay inside me an animal who could think of so many ways to hurt the boy. Let’s not kid ourselves, we humans are animals after all.

There is a contrasting incident that took place in my life that continues to baffle me.

Many years ago, I lived in Powai, Mumbai. My place of work took me past a slum. One evening while driving back from work I saw a crowd gathered on the side of the road. Emitting from the crowd was a shrieking sound that startled me. Curiosity got the better of me and I stopped my car. I got down and pushed my way past the crowd and headed to the source of the shrieking. I saw a man beating a woman and the crowd standing around and watching. The beast in me threatened to come out. Without a thought of my own safety given the size of the crowd and the place (the slum), I yelled at the man and marched menacingly towards him. He stopped hitting the woman and curiously looked at me. The woman, still crouched on the ground, looked at me through her sobbing eyes. I am not sure when or how but I recall holding the man by the collar and threatening to hit him. And then I felt something hit me on my back. I turned thinking someone from the crowd had hit me. What I saw startled me. It was the woman who was being beaten. She yelled back at me “leave my husband alone.” I was too shocked to continue holding the man. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

The man was amused and sarcastically asked me “what is she to you, sir?”

“Nothing, nobody” yelled the woman.

I stood speechless as the man and woman both stood before me. I turned and pushed my way through the crowd. The scene is fresh in mind even today and I continue to remain baffled. The crowd, which I am sure consisted of slum dwellers, didn’t react at all to the act of humiliating a woman in public. No one went and intervened. The man took pride in the flogging. The woman didn’t want to be rescued or shall I say was protective of her husband.

How could all these realities co-exist?

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I forgot to buy him yogurt (concluding part)

(Continued from Part 1)

The Empty Bench

As the jet touched down at Boston’s Logan airport my heart thumped in my chest. I had spent over 3 months trying to follow the system that would get me to visit my friend in prison. I didn’t have any communication to tell me that I would get to see him that day. Doug and Barbara my friends from New Hampshire picked me up from the airport and drove me to the minimum-security prison in Ayer Massachusetts. Both wanted to know more about who I was visiting and why. It was a good question and at that moment I wondered too. But I had made a promise to a friend that I hardly knew as a friend. It was important that I remain a man of my word.

On the way I went through my mental checklist of things I needed to do. I had the documentation needed to visit and I had the US dollar bills needed to buy yogurt for my friend. I watched time pass me by as we drove through scenic Massachusetts. In a little over an hour, we pulled up into the parking lot of a medical camp and minimum-security prison officially known as FMC Devens Massachusetts. I left my mobile phones in the SUV and armed with my passport and other documents, I entered the reception hall of the camp. It didn’t look like a prison at first. I was reminded of a visiting hall in a dorm as soon as I entered the building.

A bland voice asked me whom I was to see. I had to fill up a form too. I wasn’t allowed to bring even a pen and relied on a cheap one lying next to the stack of forms. The very first line had me write up his name and inmate registration number. I wrote his name “Rajat Gupta”. I then paused at the column titled ‘Relationship with above mentioned inmate’, I wrote “Friend”. I wrote the word and I re read the word and I wondered if I honestly qualified as one. He was allowed no more than 10 people who could visit him and of all the hundreds and thousands he knew, he had authorized me. I have to respect that and I have to know him to be my friend.

My passport was taken as a security measure and I was sent to a waiting hall that had about 15 people in there. It resembled a large waiting room of a college dormitory. It had basic chairs, a host of vending machines, doors leading out to various facilities including one that went to an outdoor seating area. I also noticed there was a television screen and of course many security cameras. I noted the location of the yogurt vending machine and I knew what I had to do. I had been told I should spend as much time as I could to make the visit count. I thought a couple of hours would be sufficient. Doug and Barbara had affectionately said “take your time in there” when I left the SUV. But I was mindful of the fact that they were in the parking lot with the entire family and that included two very young children.

It seemed like ages but it couldn’t have been more than five minutes when I noticed a series of doors to my left opening and through them walked a familiar face. At first I could only see the face. The hair was still trimmed and neat, the eyes slightly sunken but it was the olive-green jumpsuit that hit me hard.

I had seen Rajat in a fine suit with a Hermes tie. I had seen him in track pants and a cool sweatshirt when he left me at the airport. But I had not seen him in an olive-green jumpsuit with his name printed across his chest. I couldn’t look him in the eyes. We hugged like lost friends and we sat opposite each other. I remember every word we spoke but that is conversation between two friends and things that I will cherish forever. But when we spoke, I couldn’t help look in his eyes and continue to see a mixture of sadness and determination. He spoke about the new friends he had made and his daily routine and somehow I wish it were more than doing household chores. He kept himself busy and fit; we had talked about a plan of things to do when he is out. I couldn’t however, get over the fact that I was seeing a friend in prison and his prison attire rattled me.

Somewhere in the conversation he asked me if I wanted to eat something. And before I could respond he pointed at the vending machines and categorically stated that he didn’t have any money to buy anything for me. That statement was like a knock out punch and I still don’t know why. I couldn’t handle the words that came from Rajat, a friend who didn’t hesitate to take me out to dinner in DC’s finest restaurant less than a year ago. A lump formed in my throat, my eyes threatened to spill some tears, my brain fought to keep my emotions in check. I could only blurt out that I wasn’t hungry. I was fine and I thought I should leave since it was a long way to my friend’s house. I pointed to the SUV in the parking lot that Rajat and I could see through the hall’s window. His eyes said something but I couldn’t see them. I didn’t leave immediately and we talked some more.

But I forgot to buy him yogurt.

I became jumpy and somewhere inside me I didn’t know how to handle Rajat in an olive-green jumpsuit, his name tag flashing at me and him declaring he had no money to buy me food. Somewhere the words brought back memories of a different era when I was in college in the US. The year was 1984. I didn’t have money to buy food then. I slept hungry for many nights and I made one loaf of bread and generic peanut butter last a week. I wanted to give him money but was aware that I am forbidden to do so. I didn’t want to create a problem for him. I wanted to see him sipping fine wine and I wanted my friend to be out of prison.

But I forgot buy him yogurt.

I didn’t even remember to offer him something; perhaps even a drink. I wanted to say something, do something, and all I did was fidget. Rajat sensed something for sure. I know the years, many as Managing Director of McKinsey and Company had honed his observation skills. He asked me if I wanted to see some areas of the facilities. I was grateful to get up from the chair and walk. And then I asked him for something I have never asked him; I asked him if there was a way in which I could get a picture with him. He said there was a designated cameraman. He could put in a request but it would take a few minutes. I said I would wait.

Rajat then led me to the far end of the hall. There was a door that led to a cafeteria. He pointed out the benches laid out and told me where he sat to eat his meals. I couldn’t go in there but I could clearly see the sparse tables and the various kitchen appliances in the background. Rajat paused to describe his daily routine and my turbulent mind struggled to maintain focus. He talked about doing dishes at wee hours of the morning and he said something about food.

But I forgot to buy him yogurt.

He then took me through another door and we were in a small fenced area. This had wooden tables and benches. He told me that this is where inmates eat when the weather is nice. I soaked in the fresh Massachusetts air and looked around. Rajat pointed to the rear of the fenced area and indicated that the prison’s main area was beyond the wall there. Just then the photographer arrived. He too was in the same olive-green jumpsuit. He asked to stand together and I remember quelling the urge to hug Rajat. I just wanted to comfort him but I held back. Rajat told me that it would be a while before he could get the photograph and wasn’t sure if he could send it to me. He said he would try to get it to Anil (our common friend) to send it on to me.

But I forgot to buy him yogurt.

A few minutes later I once again asked to leave. Rajat hugged me and thanked me. I felt another lump in my throat and turned away because I didn’t want to let my tears flow. I don’t know what raced through my mind but I just wanted Rajat back to his family and out of this horrible olive-green jumpsuit.

And there was nothing I could about it.

And I forgot to buy him yogurt. In fact I forgot all about food until the kids in the car reminded me. Even then I didn’t remember the yogurt; I wanted to lose myself in the smiles of Doug and Barbara’s two lovely children. It was later that evening when another friend reminded me of the yogurt.

Anil and Sandhya Sood have been my friends for many years. Anil in particular started as a business acquaintance and welcomed me to his home. Sandhya the lovely lady that she is, took over from there. She is more a friend than Anil is, even though she talks less than Anil does. Anil is the one who got Rajat and me together. That evening I spoke to both of them.

I described the day’s events and visiting Rajat. That’s when Sandhya asked me if I had bought him yogurt. And that is when I remembered that I hadn’t. It was the second time on the same day that I felt the wind being knocked out of me.

How in heaven’s name had I forgotten, I chided myself. Sandhya was even better, she reprimanded for my folly. Like a true friend she asked me if I was off my rockers. I then narrated the day’s events and all the emotions I went through. I could hear her voice quiver. Anil and Rajat have known each other from Modern School Barakhamba Road, New Delhi. They went to IIT together and Anil was at Rajat’s trial too. And yet they hadn’t visited Rajat until then. There were many reasons but one of them was clearly not knowing how to handle seeing a friend in prison. I brought perspective they told me and helped them plan their visit to see Rajat.

I returned to India and for all these months I have asked myself the same stupid question, why did I forget to buy him yogurt? Friendship is like that. Rajat and I have hardly known each other for long but somewhere there was a connection from my side. It has less to do with the trial and his innocence or guilt. It has more to do with the frailty of human existence. From a knight in shining armour, savior of the world, one could easily be reduced to a felon. I am reminded of Amitabh Bachchan who went through a similar phase in his life. He didn’t go to prison but was close to losing his house in the 1990s. Then his life turned around and he is back to being the Baadshah.

I am sure Rajat will come out stronger. I could see the determination in his eyes. I don’t know how I would ever apologise to Rajat when I next see him. I don’t know what I would say to make it up to him. As the seers of yore have said,

“…time just keeps flowing like a river. It doesn’t stop at a point for you to pause and ponder…”

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It’s time we all did too.

 

Speaking about him...

Speaking about him…

In the early ‘80s I was aboard an Air India flight headed towards New York City. I was an excited teenager about to join an American University. There was an air of superiority considering there were very few of ‘my cadre’. A few minutes into the flight and I noticed to older teenagers engaged in a heated discussion. They were near enough for me to hear their conversation. I could tell they were intellectually charged. One was a clear fan of Vikram Sarabhai, the other committed to Homi Bhabha. I have to confess that at the time I wasn’t familiar with their respective contributions. The argument continued as the flight headed towards London – the first stop. The air of superiority that engulfed me left rather quickly when I got to know the depth of the conversation the two were having. I don’t recall it all but I know this much, after a while they seemed to agree on something and the conversation became less heated. I caught the name APJ Abdul Kalam and the word “missile”. As a student of chemistry I didn’t really care who he was or what his contribution to the word “missile” was.

Over the years, India’s progress in missile technology, nuclear technology and eventually the office of the President of India became synonymous with one name Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. I grew to admire him and I grew to question him. In the late 1990s I read a speech attributed to him. It talked about Ramzan in Dubai, spitting in Singapore etc. I had my own point of view that I voiced on the Net but it never reached him.

Then one day this changed. The Madras School of Economics, Chennai, where SAGE hosts a lecture for the last 6 years, was hosting Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam as the 7th speaker. This was in July 2014. The decks were cleared and I landed in Chennai. The rain gods were particularly childish as they played hide and seek with us. The flight carrying Dr Kalam got delayed. It landed and Dr Kalam arrived at the venue. He was everything I imagined him to be. He was small built wore sports shoes and walked briskly. As he alighted from his SUV, I greeted him with flowers. These quickly transferred to an aide. He was ready to go but had to make a stop to be photographed with the MSE staff. The ‘quick’ photograph took 20 minutes! He then walked with me to the lecture hall. As he entered he noticed the display of books. And that is when he first spoke to me. He said “oh so, you are the SAGE guy!” I was thrilled to bits.

He walked around and saw the selection of books. He paused, he browsed and I felt like a giggly school girl, giddy at his every gesture. And then he turned and walked into the lecture hall. He got a reception reserved for rock stars. As far as the eye could see, there were people. These were students, teachers, faculty, and everyone else who wanted a glimpse of the legendary man.

MVV_2225

His humour was infectious.

The introductions began and I waited my turn to speak. While waiting I thought about what I would want to say. I was to welcome him, to talk about him and most of all, to thank him. But I wanted to make it special and make it different. And then I remembered the two budding scientists in the Air India flight. As I got up to speak, the words began to flow. I recounted the flight when I was a teenager and I looked at Dr Kalam when I stated that they both agreed that his contribution was un-paralleled. The humble Dr Kalam, smiled a small smile and quickly looked at his hands. I know he was used to receiving accolades and it was heartwarming to know a compliment still made him smile.

The evening ended and I gave him a memento. He showed it to the audience as a gesture of gratitude for what he had received. The humility in the man was evident from his every action and his every gesture. But he was to floor me once again before he finally left.

The institute had arranged for tea and Dr. Kalam politely declined. I wanted to spend a little more time with him and his declining meant that I couldn’t. A brief pang of disappointment threatened to become larger and I forced on a smile I didn’t want to smile. I began to walk with him to his waiting SUV. He turned to his aide and stated that since they were already late, would they still arrive in Coimbatore in time for another engagement that evening. The aide responded. I then understood why Dr. Kalam didn’t want the tea; he wanted to reach Coimbatore directly from the MSE campus. This was after he had come straight from the airport to the MSE campus. The man didn’t want to waste a single minute of his life. Am sure food and water were for sustenance and he didn’t care much for that. “At 82, I want to be this man”, I thought to myself. And I bowed my head to the humility and the spirit that defined this man.

As we reached the SUV, many waiting students thrust pieces of paper to get his autograph. He patiently signed them until he reached a Rs. 100 note thrust before him. He looked up and refused to sign it. That also marked the end of his autographing spree. The aide opened the door of the SUV and Dr. Kalam reached inside to grasp the handle that would help heave him inside. I could see him struggle just a wee bit and almost reached out to help. The aide quickly gestured for me not to and stood patiently until Dr. Kalam seated himself. The aide then helped close the door, he gave me half a smile and I understood what he meant. Dr. Kalam didn’t need anyone’s assistance to seat himself. At 82, he was confidence personified, he was positivity at its best and he was humility that wouldn’t be seen for time to come.

I cannot believe he has gone but I know that his spirit lives on. There is always a lump in my throat when I think of people who have touched my life. The greatest tribute to Dr. Kalam is perhaps not in the flowers, the wreaths, the blog posts and condolence messages. To me the greatest tribute to the man is to follow the path that he followed, to build an India that continues his vision and to overcome obstacles the way he did. For him his country was the center of his universe and his fellow citizens his heartbeat. I know, even today he wouldn’t rest a minute longer than necessary; he would want to continue to build India.

Its time we all did too.

 

 

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