The Meisterklasse

Staying in a hotel is a drab idea when option of living in a Pension is available. The term pension is typically used in Continental European countries. Pensions are generally cheaper than other lodgings, such as hotels, although they offer limited services. Pensions are often located in historic buildings and are mostly family-run.

I used to work as a consultant to UNIDO and visit Vienna frequently. I was recommended Pension Chistina on Hafnersteig 7. The location was near Schwedenplatz with excellent transport links and proximity to tourist areas. The Pension boasted of a dignified ambience where the old Viennese style of furniture was blended with the modern convenience. The Pension was run by a family.

Pension Christina

“Bitte sehr” Mrs Becker said when I was checking in for the first time in Pension Christina. It was early morning of November and the weather was rather windy and cold.

I finished the checking in formalities. Mrs Becker ushered me to the breakfast area that was warmly lit. “I call you Prasad?” she beamed “I know you badly need a hot black coffee now. And while you warm up, let me get you some sausages with a tinge of mustard and couple of croissants. You must be tired and hungry”. She said this in a kind and friendly tone.

Mrs Becker was a plump lady in fifties I guess. She had a great smile and wrinkles on the face. She was the caretaker at Pension Christina.

As I was finishing my breakfast, I heard someone coming down running from the staircase. “Hey, Nora” Mrs Becker yelled “We have a guest here from India – show him his room please?”

Nora must be in early twenties. She had a beautiful face with long hair and an athletic body. Nora carried my bag to the tiny lift where we barely squeezed in. “Give me a shout if you need anything” she said as she reached me to my room. Then she winked and said, “or Press 9 – make your choice!”.

I took the Metro and reached UNIDO office at the Vienna International Centre. In the evening, when I got back, I did not see Mrs Becker at the reception. Nora was in charge. “Oh, my mother has stepped out for some shopping” She explained. “She is getting some Kopfsalat, Brokkoli and Spargel from the market to make you something vegetarian”. I really appreciated Mrs Becker’s concern and the kind gesture. I felt at home.

I stayed for a week at the Pension. I became friendly and close to the Becker family. Nora used to ask me hundreds of questions on India while Mrs Becker used to tell me stories about the history of the city of Vienna.  Mr Fischer who used to drop by every day for a beer also became a good friend. We used to have couple of glasses of Hefe Weissbier (a popular beer) after the dinner service was closed and watch Mrs Becker and Nora cleaning up the kitchen. Mr Fischer was a teacher who retired from a school where Nora used to study.

During my assignments with UNIDO over three years, I made frequent visits to Vienna. I always stayed at the Pension Christina. Mrs Becker, Nora as well as Mr Fischer used to look forward to my arrivals and the gifts I used to carry, especially the Indian handicrafts.

“Hey Prasad, have you visited the green wine places in the Alps?  Nora asked. She was peddling a bicycle, accompanying me as I was returning from a short walk on the Stephansplatz.  It was a bright Sunday morning with light breeze rustling around on the cobbled street of the Hafnersteig. “Today there will be a viola recital – Interested?”. I readily agreed.

At 5 pm we were all set to go. Nora took out her Beetle car and I hopped in with sandwiches packed by Mrs Becker. As we were taking a turn on the A1 motorway (West Autobahn), Nora pulled the Beetle aside. There was a handsome man waiting for us. “Come on in Berk” Nora said.

Berk is a Turkish name. I could see that the handsome man had a Turkish accent and a Turkish face. He was Nora’s best friend. I asked Berk to take the front seat next to Nora and moved back.

Berk was an amazing person. He was a musician par excellence and played keyboards as well as Harmonica.  At the green wine place, he explained to me about the Austrian folk music and deciphered some of the viola pieces that were being played. He used to perform at the famous Louisiana Blues Pub (LBP) located at Britta Schönstein KG.


Louisiana Blues Pub in Vienna

“Prasad, we must go to the LBP someday to listen to Berk” Nora said. I could see her admiration about Berk and an awe in her eyes. Certainly, the girl was in love.

I told Mrs Becker about meeting Berk and the LBP. “I don’t like this Berk character” Mrs Becker was very clear. “He is no Austrian you know. He is Turkish”.  She did not mince the words. I could see Mrs Becker’s dislike towards Berk. I dont think she had ever bothered to know more about him.

On Monday night, Nora took me to the LGP. Berk was performing on the harmonica. He was simply superb and I could see the audience mesmerized by his renditions. The final piece he played was Beethoven Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 following the “style” of the great Wilhelm Kempff.

A look alike of Berk

At this point, I saw Nora getting up and taking on the microphone. She started humming as if to complete the 360 degrees of the Pathetique – Her accompaniment was so gentle and so spontaneous. I could sense the deep emotions between Berk and Nora – so much was unspoken – and I felt rather envious. The Beethoven piece ended with a great applause. “I want to be a regular performer here Prasad – this is the place to play music in this city” Berk sounded a bit emotional.

A look alike of Nora

When we sat down with a glass of wine, Berk showed me the harmonica. It was a Hohner Meisterklasse that is played by professional players. This harmonica could master any score written for the violin. Its construction utilized a narrow mouthpiece with rounded channel openings. More importantly, it had 56 Classic chromonica reeds and apparently, it is the only Hohner chromatic with a range of 31/2 octaves from g – c. The case of Meisterklasse had letter B (i.e. Berk)

The Meisterklasse with a Case

I have been an amateur harmonica player myself and play reasonably well. I always had a dream to buy a Hohner harmonica but never got the guidance. Hohner is the world’s largest manufacturer of quality harmonicas. Berk said that the best place to buy a Meisterklasse in Vienna was the City Music Wien located at Taborstraße 14. “We will go there one day with Berk and get you  Meisterklasse” Nora said

But we could not – as I had late work sessions at the UNIDO practically every day.

The night before I was leaving for Mumbai, Mrs Becker “hosted” a dinner for me. “This dinner is not going to be invoiced Prasad. Its for you from the family”.  I was really touched by her gesture.

“Prasad, Nora has invited Berk for the dinner. I really don’t like his coming. He is not the kind of person Nora should be involved with. He doesn’t have a regular job. He is only a musician and plays in a Pub. And besides, he is not an Austrian” Mrs Becker was clearly disturbed

I told Mrs Becker that Berk is a nice guy. He may take some time but sure he will do well. He has the talent and the confidence. And more than anything – he will take good care of Nora as they love each other. Doesn’t this matter the most? I said.

Mrs Becker listened to me patiently and then said “Prasad, let us see. I really don’t know much about Berk. But if I like the boy, I will open a bottle of Grüner Veltliner (great Austrian white wine) during the deserts and if I don’t like him then it will be something ordinary”. I liked this deal.

The dinner was lively. Berk impressed Mrs Becker with his wit and insights. He spoke about the historical places in Vienna – a subject that was close to Mrs Beckers heart. Mrs Becker told stories about the Stephansdom, Vienna’s cathedral and one of the tallest churches in the world. Nora was more of a listener but she ensured that all of us were well looked after. During the dinner conversations, she held Berk’s hands a number of times and he held her hand firmly with affection. Mrs Becker was watching. Both of us noticed Nora’s eyes – the warmth and happiness she was expressing. When we finished the dinner, Nora went to the kitchen to get some deserts.

“Mrs Becker, can we have a glass of wine with the deserts” I asked

Mrs Becker said “sure” and walked down the stairs to the cellar.

I was real tense.

She returned to the table with a bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

I was so delighted that I did thumps up.

Nora didn’t know about our deal – but it was clear to her that Mrs Becker was now very comfortable with Berk and probably I had a small role to play.  She drove to drop Berk at the metro station.

After she was back, she knocked on my door and offered help to pack my bags. I let her do a bit as I didn’t want to disappoint her.

I was at the security of the Vienna airport in the morning to take my flight to Zurich. The inspector at the security asked me to show my handbag – “Sir, are you carrying any metal device?” When I said no and showed my surprise – he asked me to open the handbag and spotted a case. I was surprised as I did not recollect that I had one. “May I request you to open the case please” The Inspector asked politely.

I opened the case and noticed that it carried letter “B”. There was a small note – with complements Berk and Nora

“Excellent choice Sir” The Inspector said while closing the case that had “my Meisterklasse”

Today, Christina Pension is not there anymore. The management has changed. The pension is now renovated to a hotel called Alma Boutique. The old charm has gone.

Hotel Alma Boutique 

I have stopped working for UNIDO and no longer travel to Vienna.  I don’t know where Mrs Becker, Nora and Berk are today as I don’t have their contacts. I really miss them.

I play Hohner Meisterklasse occasionally. But the magnificent piece of ‘Pathetique’ Mov. 2 that Berk played, still haunts me – and not to forget the spontaneous voice over from Nora.

I plan to visit the Louisiana Blues Pub once again.

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Drinking to get Drunk

Drinking alcohol is no more a taboo. It probably never was. Many drink occasionally (that is what they say!) and some drink on a regular basis –every day. These regular drinkers take a peg or two of a large whisky at home after the dinner. Some prefer a glass of red wine as doctors say its good for the heart. The key is to drink moderately and not to get drunk. Some social drinkers drink only at the parties. These party drinkers stick to a drink or two to avoid making a scene.  Very rarely you see people overly drinking – and those who do so are generally captains and chief engineers sailing on the ships. These gentlemen are pretty used to swaying.

I admire those who drink solely to get drunk. These are the brave hearts. To these “drunkards”, any moderate drinking is not exciting as you don’t get “high” enough if you just had a peg or two. They feel that one should get drunk, then let yourself go with no chains to your mind and the body. “When you are truly drunk, man –  you are simply free” said a friend of mine. Another friend of mine who works for a multinational bank said that unless you get drunk you don’t get the “value for money” – he was perhaps right.

When I studied at IIT Bombay, we believed in the value for money. We used to go to a shady bar outside the Y-Point called Ratna and have couple of glasses of Mosambi and Naringi (cheap drinks that contained more than 60% spirit) and return to the hostels late night almost “floating”.

During the night of Mahashivaratri, we used to have “Bhang” that used to knock us down. I remember that I got so “high” after a glass of Bhang that I thought I had two large spans of wings on my body – replacing hands. I wanted to jump outside the window to fly over the Powai lake under the moonlight. My friends who were not that much drunk (fortunately) made all the efforts to hold me back jumping out of the window.

The rationale of getting drunk reached another dimension when listening to music from some of the maestros. We used to invite Pundit Bhimsen Joshi during Mood Indigo at IIT. There were occasions when he used to come in a “trance” and we, in order to appreciate his performance, used to overly drink and get “high enough” to reach his “level”.

But indeed, many artists do get drunk when they create or perform unusual art. I remember I went to a friend living in one of the old mansions on the Marine Drive in Mumbai. (Only people who are lucky or have done good deeds in their past lives get to live in these wonderful houses facing the sea). This friend was one of the famous guitarist – playing jazz. He did not make much money as to him money did not matter.

When I reached my friends house just after the sunset, his servant told me that “saab” is in the balcony playing guitar and has instructed not to disturb. I went close to the balcony and saw him sitting on a chair, holding his large box guitar and strumming. He would occasionally hum like an iceane on a rum cake. There was a large glass of whisky next to him on a teapoy. He would pause sometimes to take a shot from the glass. He was doing a fantastic piece of jazz – something very unconventional. It resembled a bit like numbers from Liona Boyd – an amazing Canadian Guitar Artist. I asked the servant “kitne glass liye (how many pegs has he had?)”. The servant showed 5 fingers (meant five glasses). I did not disturb him. I only wished I could record – as he wouldn’t even know what amazing pieces he was playing.

Apparently, people tend to talk too much when they get drunk. When you sit at the bar, you do meet such people. These people tell you something that would otherwise be not shared with anybody. These are their secrets. When these people get drunk, you discover an entirely new personality. Sometimes they abuse you, tell how they felt hurt because you did not treat well in the past and in some occasions they tell about someone they had a crush and alas – things did not work out. It could be a can of worms sometimes that gets opened. You are supposed to forget or pardon when these folks speak in a drunken condition.

I was working in Bangkok on a mission with the Asian Development Bank. We had a pretty mean and nasty American project manager, Nick, who used to kind of “harass” the Team. He was very difficult to work along but we both used to be pretty good friends. Julia, one of our Team members was from Australia. Julia was always uncomfortable with Nick and used to tell me how much she hates him. Nick also did not seem to like her. They not only had differences when it came to technical matters but also had strong differences on opinions and philosophy of life. Nick used to play saxophone at a German pub in one of the by lanes (soi) of Sukumvit. He was really good on the sax.

We used to go to the pub after the work and Julia used to tag along – but rather reluctantly. “I see him enough for the day – so not again” She used to say. We used to joke – what if Nick and Julia were married! Such different personalities!! I used to tell Julia that Nick was actually a nice person and somehow he did not know how to work with intelligent and beautiful women. I even told her that Nick actually likes her company. But Julia never seemed to be convinced with all my “stories” and defence.

We used to sit on the bar and have couple of drinks while Nick used to play the Sax. All of us were moderate drinkers. Julia was very careful as she feared she would speak rubbish if drunk.

One of the Friday evenings, however, we noticed that Julia was a bit high. The bar man was handing over the fourth “shot” of “long island” and she was all in the mood to get “drunk”. Long island is lethal drink that contains 1 part tequila, 1 part gin, 1 part whiskey, 1 part white rum, 1 part vodka, 1 oz sugar syrup, Coca-Cola and orange juice. It has all the “devils” in just one place.

On gulping the fourth shot of long island, Julia started speaking in a bit of slur. She asked me to move towards a table leaving the bar. “I want to talk to you Prasad”

I saw a different Julia when we sat on a side table. She started speaking in all emotions. She asked “Are you sure about what you told me about Nick? Does he really like me?”. She asked. She was looking towards Nick who was mending notes on the Sax. He was doing real good.

I told Julia that I truly believed so. Julia then spoke about how she admires Nick sometimes, but has somehow a bias of not liking him in the first instance. She realized that it has been a kind of “ego trip” – who will make the first move.  She went on to explain that it was not fair on her part to blame him all the time. She wouldn’t mind patching up if I spoke to Nick and explain. I could clearly see all this happening because she was overly drunk. It was her inner mind that was speaking out loud. Her eyes were moist and the voice was quivering. “Well Julia, I will certainly be the mediator if this will help and talk to Nick tomorrow. Let me help you however to get a taxi and I suggest you go home. You are overly drunk”.

I dropped Julia to the Taxi. She could hardly walk. “Forget what I said Prasad – I must be blabbering  something crazy” She whispered in my ears.

When I returned to the bar, I told the Bar tender to get me the last drink. I told my colleague about how drunk Julia was and how when you get drunk, your inner mind expresses what you really feel” I asked “can you ever imagine that Julia would ever get so soft on Nick?. I saw her venting out today. The Long Island worked. Must let Nick know sometime”

The bar tender while passing me the last drink said “ Strange woman, she took 5 shots of Long Island asking me only to mix sugar syrup, Coca-Cola and orange juice with no alcohol and paid the full price”.

I was astonished with the trick Julia played. You don’t need to get actually drunk to be free.

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Arrivals of the Departed

Airplane landing with sunrise

On a Sunday morning, my Professor Friend visited my house. He seemed a bit exasperated.

“I have to receive Erin Brockovich at the international airport. She is arriving tonight at 1 30 am from New York. I am unable to pick her up as I am in Delhi for a meeting with the Prime Minister. Can you please do me a favor. Pick her up and drop at the ITC Grand at Lower Parel.

Many of your know Erin was instrumental in building a case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) of California in 1993. Her successful lawsuit was the subject of a 2000 film, Erin Brockovich, which starred Julia Roberts. Erin is now the president of Brockovich Research & Consulting.

When I did not answer, Professor patted me and said “I know you were expecting to receive Julia Roberts when I mentioned Erin Brockovich. If Julia was to be received, then I would have never come to you with such a request and cancelled appointment with the Primate Minister”. I thought the Professor was right.

But with some reluctance, I agreed to Professor’s request. Well, I hadn’t received anyone lately from the international airport. Receiving folks at the airports is really a pain. It may require sometimes hours of wait especially if are receiving someone flying Air India. I decided to help my Friend.

Professor seemed to have read my mind. Dr Modak, don’t worry. I have two offerings for you. One is the Airport Receivers Guidance Manual. I prepared this Manual when I was young and had to receive international guests every other week. This Manual illustrates how to handle 26 different scenarios e.g. what if the flight is late, what if the power supply at the airport is suddenly cut off and what if the mobile phone runs out of power etc. just to illustrate a few. This Manual will put you in peace and help you to deal with any uncanny situation”

I glanced through the Manual. The Manual was very comprehensive. A job – well done. I knew Professor always looked for perfection.

“I have one more interesting item for you”. Professor said this in a rather mysterious tone. He handed over to me a small box. “Open the box when you feel bored or frustrated at the airport. But not otherwise”. He almost warned me. “And Dr Modak, you will return this box to me tomorrow”. Professor left.

I reached the Mumbai International Airport at 1 30 am. I estimated that Erina will come out of the immigration and customs by 2 15 or so. I was carrying a placard flashing her name in large capital letters.

There must be arrivals of several flights nearly at the same time as there was a flux of passengers streaming out of the gate. Nearly 70 to 80% looked like Indians – but some were clearly Indians with foreign passports. They looked different and walked out as if aliens.

I saw some seasoned travelers. They carried one piece of luggage with 4 wheels (that worked) and glided through the gate swiftly. They knew where to get the taxi and carried Rupees.

Then there were gulf based passengers who carried big boxes with Sony Television and such electronics. The big boxes were tied with a rope and had their names and addresses written in ink with large size letters. There were spelling mistakes.

Like me there were several hanging in the arrival area. Many were carrying flowers to greet. When met, there were hugs, smooching and touching of feet. When a couple would arrive, the man would push his wife to bend down and touch feet of the Mom (or the mother in law). And it was touching sometimes to see a daughter hugging her dad – may be after parting for a year or more. The sons appeared a bit stiff and looked confused with poor body language.

The foreigners were looking for the banners to locate the pick-up drivers. They seemed worried and a bit lost. When connected, I could see an expression of relief on their faces.

During the first half hour that I was waiting for Erina, I saw arrivals of Sadhus or equivalent, Politicians (in power and out of the power) and Corporate Honchos. They arrived in style with a contingent following them with the “tamasha” of garlanding and then getting escorted to the VIP exits.

I think I saw some Bollywood celebrities when Swiss Air arrived –  Some old flames wearing dark goggles with large frames and some young one’s sporting shorts. They carried with them a cloud of sophisticated perfume.

And then I saw the airline crew arriving. I saw the Singapore Airlines crew that sailed out of the arrival gate in grace like swans.

It was now nearly 2 30 am and my arriving passenger Erina was not in the sight. Did I lose her? My banner was prominent and she couldn’t have missed. I got worried. I decided to refer to Professor’s Guidance Manual on the 26 scenarios. However, none of the scenarios were of relevance. The flight arrived on time. There was power at the airport and my mobile phone was 90% charged!

I pulled out the printout of the ticket that was given to me by the Professor and decided to approach the information desk. The desk was right in the arrival area.  “Sir let me check for you about your flight” The girl at the desk said in an assuring tone. She was eating a chewing gum to pass her time.

“Well Sir, the flight you are looking for is to arrive tomorrow. You have come a day early. All other details remain the same i.e. 1 30 am arrival”

I was shell shocked.

No wonder why the Professors are called absent minded souls. He had simply missed the date because of 1 30 am.

So, this was the 27th scenario that was not thought of by the Professor! I was really upset with this mess. I thought of calling him up right away and give him a piece of my mind – but then I refrained as I knew that this was something unintentional and now nothing could be done!

I then remembered the box Professor had given me with a tip that open the box when you feel frustrated at the airport.

The box contained a pair of spectacles – routine stuff I thought but it had an emblem “Ultra Vision”

So, I wore the spectacles for amusement.  And wow, what did I see.

I saw Mr JRD Tata walking out with Homi Bhabha. All know who JRD is and many would also know Sir Homi Bhabha.

In 1937, together with W. Heitler, a German physicist, Bhabha solved the riddle about cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are fast moving, extremely small particles coming from outer space. When these particles enter the earth’s atmosphere, they collide with the atoms of air and create a shower of electrons. Bhabha’s discovery of the presence of nuclear particles (which he called mesons) in these showers was used to validate Einstein’s theory of relativity making him world famous. Bhabha soon realized the need for an institute fully devoted to fundamental research, and wrote to J.R.D. Tata for funding. This resulted in the establishment of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai in 1945, with Bhabha as the Director, a position he held until his death. In 1948, Homi Bhabha was appointed the Chairman of the International Atomic Energy Commission. Under his guidance, nuclear reactors like the Apsara, Cirus and Zerlina were built. A multi-faceted personality, Bhabha was immensely fond of music, painting and writing. Some of his paintings are displayed in the British Art Galleries and the TIFR art collection today is rated as one of the best collections of contemporary Indian art in the country. He died when Air India Flight 101 crashed near Mont Blanc on 24 January 1966

I stopped JRD and Homi Bhabha “Sirs, how come I see you here?” I was astonished to see these wonderful people after their death years ago.

“Well God tells us sometimes to visit the Earth and help him. We get into the aircraft and take empty seats when passing through the clouds. Nobody knows how we do it. Homi says that it is all courtesy the cosmic rays. But I don’t understand the physics as much as he does”. JRD said this with a warm and kind smile.

I was simply dazed to hear this. Tata and Sir Bhabha left the airport.

My attention then went to two gentlemen behind. One was John Jacob and second was Vasant Takalkar. Both famous environmentalists who devoted their life for protection of nature, forests and biodiversity.

When I waived at them, they asked “How did you “see” us? We never get noticed when we arrive. God asks us to arrive whenever He notices that there is need to push the agenda on sustainability”.

The third man behind them was Anupam Mishra Noted Gandhian, journalist, environmentalist, and water conservationist who recently passed away. While joining Jacob and Takalkar he said “I know him – he is our Professor’s Friend and today he is wearing the Ultra Vision spectacles”

No wonder I realized why the Professor was so secretive and protective about these spectacles.

John C Jacob (1936 – 11 October 2008) was one of the pioneers of the environmental movement in Kerala, India. Jacob was born at Nattakam in Kottayam. At Payyanur, in 1972 he started a zoology club that would form the genesis of campus-based nature conservation activities. The club also became involved in protesting threats to the environment. Jacobs also started a few “green” magazines stressing the need to preserve nature. He also set up the Society for Environment Education, Kerala (SEEK), which published an environment-focused magazine Soochimukhi. Additionally, Jacob led the movement against the Silent Valley project in South Kerala. In recognition of his contributions to the environment, he was awarded the Kerala Biodiversity Board’s Haritham Award and the state government’s Vana Mithra Award.

Environmentalist Vasant Takalkar is famous for the ‘Takalkar Pattern’ of continuous contour trenching, passed away on Saturday morning following a heart attack when he was guiding youths at a tree plantation drive on the Chatuhshrungi hill. For the past 37 years, Takalkar worked for the cause of forestation, carried out soil and moisture conservation activities through continuous contour trenching, spanning about 700 villages in five districts of the state and generated employment worth five million man days for transient and casual labour. The central government had noticed his work and awarded him Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra Award. On Saturday, he had gone to Chatuhshrungi hill to participate in a two-day tree plantation drive organized by Youth to Youth, an NGO. He collapsed while working with the youths and was hospitalised. He died during treatment.

Environmentalist Anupam Mishra Noted Gandhian, journalist, environmentalist, and water conservationist. He had been awarded the 1996 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar (IGPP) award instituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. He travelled to villages across India describing the value of time-tested systems of water harvesting. He advocated conservation of traditional water structures in India as well as abroad. He wrote books, like, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Lakes are still Standing, 1993) and Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, 1995), — landmark works in the field of water conservation.

I really appreciated God’s strategy to send these noble souls back to the Earth at least for a while to help the humanity. These arrivals of the departed were indeed encouraging. Our humanity and especially in India we need such people once again.

As I was lost in these thoughts, I heard a loud noise and then saw a bunch of three people fighting amongst themselves and making a scene that only I could “see”.

These people included Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler and Stalin.


I didn’t quite like these arrivals – and did not understand the game God wanted to play.

I removed the spectacles, packed them in the box and returned home.

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Close Encounter of Papandayan Kind


Hotel Papandayan in Bandung

I worked as an international consultant on behalf of GTZ (now GIZ) for few years in Indonesia. I used to make several missions spread over a week and spaced over couple of months. The project was called Produksi Bersih (Cleaner Production). Idea was to build capacity of the Ministry (BAPEDAL), develop demonstration projects on Cleaner Production in industries, set up counseling clubs to provide advice and prepare Guidance Manuals. I liked the project.

City of Bandung was one of the focal cities for the Produksi Bersih project. Bandung, as many of you know, is one of the hubs of Indonesian textile industries. It made a sense to introduce project Produksi Bersih in Bandung.

I used to fly into Jakarta via Singapore, land by afternoon and then take a train to Bandung that had a picturesque route with a climb.


Train from Jakarta to Bandung

I remember the first time I visited Bandung. My colleagues in BAPDEAL had specifically asked me to book Hotel Papandayan. “You will love this hotel – it serves good Indian food”, one of the senior officers at the BAPEDAL advised.

I checked into hotel Papandayan on Saturday. The train was a bit late so it was already 6 pm in the evening. As the check in formalities were getting completed, the Lobby Manager Tim, a Chinese Indonesian, ushered me to the Bar.

“Sir, a welcome drink for you”. Tim introduced me to the Bar Tender “Susilo, please offer Sir the best – but as per his choice. He is going to be our regular guest from now on and this time he will be with us for 2 weeks”.

Susilo was a medium height gentleman with a warm smile. He was smart. He looked at my hand bag tag. “Dr Prasad Modak, Welcome to Papandayan. Let me propose you our signature cocktail”.

“Oh, thanks Susilo” I said.


A look a like of Susilo

Susilo got into action. He poured some 50ml vodka into a tall glass and seasoned with a good squeeze of fresh lemon juice, freshly ground black pepper, a good few slugs of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of Tabasco, a pinch of cayenne and of celery salt. His face looked like a magician. Susilo stirred everything together, then topped up the glass with ice and presented to me with a stirrer.

“Here you are Sir”

I took a sip and felt like a fire blasting to my belly. The drink was certainly like a fireball!  But nice!!

“What you call this mix Susilo?” I asked.

“Well Sir, it’s called Papandayan. Everybody loves this drink before the sunset” Susilo said this with a smile.

Some of you may know – Mount Papandayan is a complex stratovolcano, located in Garut Regency, to the southeast of the city of Bandung. At the summit, there are four large craters which contain active fumarole fields. An eruption in 1772 caused the northeast flank to collapse producing a catastrophic debris avalanche that destroyed 40 villages and killed nearly 3,000 people. The eruption truncated the volcano into a broad shape with two peaks and a flat area 1.1 km wide with Alun-Alun crater in the middle, making the mountain appear as a twin volcano; one of the peaks is called Papandayan and the other Mount Puntang.

No wonder Susilo’ s mix was a “volcano” drink.

I started my work on the Produksi BersiH project – I used to be mostly in the field with the textile industries and return late evening by around 7 pm and hit the bar with Susilo.

My usual drink was a glass of Bintang Beer. Susilo used to serve chilled Bintang in a putter glass with garlic flavored “Garuda” make peanuts.

Susilo himself was a non-alcoholic “I will drink only when I get shattered! And it will be my signature drink Papandayan” he told me

On the second day, Susilo walked to me and asked “Sir, Tim, the lobby manager tells me that you love listening to music. Is this true?” I nodded.

Well, is it OK if I ask my girlfriend Dewi to sit along and give you a company?  Dewi is a music freak and loves to talk. I am allergic to music and don’t understand a bit” Susilo said this to me like a confession. “Dewi always complains “

Dewi was the reason for Susilo’s heart-aches. She was a singer at a nearby café called – Atmosphere Resort and used to perform there between 8 to 10 pm every other night. Dewi used to come to the bar at Papandayan by 7 pm to have a shot of virgin bloody merry with Susilo on the counter and then swing to the Cafe. She would return back to Papandayan by 10 30 pm and get back with Susilo home after a dinner together. This was the routine.

Susilo introduced me to Dewi. Dewi was a beautiful and elegant Indonesian woman in late twenties. Her eyes were rather deep and mysterious. She made an impression as she spoke to me in the voice of a singer. I could sense the “power” in her voice.

Dewi liked to talk and dominate the conversations. So, we got along very well as I was a good listener.

The first thing Dewi asked me was about the women singers I admire. I said Madonna. She nodded. Then I said Celine Dion – she said OK – but wasn’t very enthusiastic. She is too formal she said. When I mentioned Lauren Wood, she was excited. I love Lauren’s “Fallen” she said and ended the conversation rather thoughtfully “You have pretty decent choice to start our conversations”

She must have enjoyed my company – as Susilo told me that Dewi really likes me and wants to come a bit early for our music conversations.

Dewi had researched a lot and had stories to tell.

According to Dewi, Madonna’s first attempts at songwriting were perceived as an important self-revelation. Most critics admired Madonna’s talent for developing “incredible” hooks that allowed the lyrics to capture the attention of the audience, even without the influence of the music.



One of Dewi’s Madonna favorite was “Rain”. Lyrically the song communicates rain to the empowering effect of love, and as describes water’s ability to clean and wash away the pain.

Rain was perceived as an exceptional ballad. It peaked at number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, while becoming a top-ten hit in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

The song’s arrangement captures turbulent elements associated with rain (such as thunder), orchestral stabs that invokes crisp lightning bolts, and a surging bridge segue driven by what sounds like electric guitar snarls. I was really impressed with Dewi’s articulation.

Having said this Dewi got rather technical. “You know Prasad,  key change happens towards the end from B♭ major to C major, followed by two spoken parts and a harmony alongside it. The coda has another melody with it, and the song ends in a group chorus without the harmonies”

I did not understand this part at all so I gulped some Bintang. “Hmm Interesting” I said


Madonna and her backup singers, Niki Haris (right) and Donna De Lory (left), performing “Rain” during The Girlie Show World Tour in 1993

In one of our discussion session, I asked Dewi about Celine Dion’s famous song A New Day has Come.

Dewi said that this song  was a new chapter in Dion’s life and career. “The song represents her child that was just born then. The song also expresses Dion’s sorrow for the 9/11 episode. Many critics say that in such mixed feelings, the song comes off like a gentle exhale against the world’s ills”.


Celine Dion

I did not know this background to the song and was amazed with Dewi’s research. Dewi continued

“Did you know Prasad that Dion was a founder of Nickels Restaurant food chain and later in association with Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Shaquille O’Neal she opened a popular night club called Pure. And In 2003, Dion signed a deal with Coty, Inc. to release Celine Dion Parfums.  Since its inception, Celine Dion Parfums has grossed over $850 million in retail sales”

To me this was a new dimension to Dion’s personality.

Our conversations were getting more engaging and interesting. Dewi started coming to the bar by 6 30 pm and I started wrapping my Produksi BersiH work in time.

It was the Friday of my first week at Papadayan. Dewi invited me to join her at the Atmosphere Resort Café. “I am doing a very special number today and I want you to come with me to listen” She was panting when she said.

I left along with Dewi but forgot to tell Susilo that I was going along with her.

Dewi was outstanding at the Atmosphere Resort Café. We were at the terrace – with a slight chill in the air and amidst the lights that were romantic.


Terrace of Atmosphere Resort Cafe

After rolling out a few “usual” songs, Dewi spoke into the mike and said “This song is very special – and I am going to sing for my dear friend Prasad”.  Many in the Café looked at me as the spot light moved to the table I was sitting.

Dewi sang Lauren Wood’s Fallen – song that featured in the film Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. The soundtrack for the movie exceeded eighteen million copies in sales, largely fueled by Lauren’s song, which rocked the North American and European charts.


Lauren Wood

I saw Dewi very emotional while singing “Fallen”. The lyrics and the tone of her vocals mingled – and the combination was really special.


A Look-alike of Dewi

Dewi held my hand after the song ended and asked the waiter to set a table for us for dinner. “The Ayam Betutu here is simply outstanding” – Dewi said

We however had a rather quite dinner. Dewi did not speak much. Her eyes were moist.

When we got back to Papandayan, it was nearly 11 pm. At the reception, Tim, the Lobby Manager stopped us. “Where were you Dewi? Susilo has been waiting for you for so long”.

We went to the bar and saw Susilo sitting alone on the stool with his back towards us. “He is having a drink” Tim said

Dewi walked to bar and hugged him from behind.

I could sense that Susilo was terribly upset. It was odd to see him drink. And I knew that the drink had to be the signature one – the “Papandayan”.

I turned to Tim and asked him to check me out in the morning

“I am shifting to the Holiday Inn for the next week” I said.

Tim did not protest and neither questioned me why.

I checked out the next day.

It was a close encounter of the Papandayan kind.

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Circle of Life with Touch Points of Tangents


Our life often moves in a circle. The journey along the circle gives us a 3600 experience and different perspectives enriching our lives.

For some, the shape of the circle is not perfect and there are broken lines, double lines and distortions. The diameters of the circle are different for different people. The color and thickness of the line of the circle may also vary. So, each circle is unique.

On our circular life, we keep moving forward on a curve, changing the course of our life without realizing that we are returning to the same point where we had started.

During this journey, our circle is touched by “tangents”. These tangents come as a surprise, appear without much notice, create “touch points” on the curve and leave us or “diverge” from our circle never to come back again.  The touch points are the golden or sometimes sad moments of our lives.

In this post, I am narrating three interesting touch points in my circular life. I begin with my encounter with a top Hindi singer of India, then with a Professor of an International repute in Vienna Airport and ending with meeting an interesting woman in Washington DC. All these touch points are diverse and different but collectively communicate lessons I learnt in my life.

This is my New Year Post. All my best wishes my blog readers. Hope to continue with you sharing of my thoughts and experiences.

I was the Music Secretary while studying at IIT Bombay. It was 1974. Mood Indigo, the famous cultural festival, was just launched. We wanted to invite Talat Mahmood, one of India’s best Ghazal singers for one of the nights. Talat Saab was renowned for his quivering and silky voice. He reached on time with his “crew” at the IIT Student Gymkhana.

As expected, his rendering of songs was intoxicating and heavenly. He chose some of the best but forgotten Ghazals. The accompaniment on the accordion was simply superb. The program that was originally estimated to end by 1 30 am ended at 2 30 am because of the demanding audience. And Talat Saab was gallantly honoring the requests of all being a good soul.

The crew started packing. Talat Saab was to take first flight to Delhi at 6 30 am. He was in a fix whether to leave for the airport from the campus at IIT. Originally, he was planning to get dropped at Bandra (West) and take a small nap for couple of hours.

He asked my advice. “Prasad, going directly to the airport from IIT makes a sense. No point to go to Bandra as it is already 3 am” – he said.

“But Sir, it will take only 20 minutes to reach the airport at this nightly hour from IIT.  If you leave now, then you will be at the airport by 3 30 max – some 3 hours early. One and a half hour is generally sufficient and you will be wasting your time and probably get more fatigued because you will chased by your fans once they find you at the airport” I told Talat Saab.

“You are right, well then, what do you suggest?” asked Talat Saab.

Suddenly, I thought of an idea. Except for the accordion player (I don’t remember now whether he was the great Enock Daniels), other members of the crew had left as they were not going to Delhi. I suggested Talat Saab that can he consider singing a few special Ghazals with the accompaniment of the accordion. He could sing the Ghazals that he does not normally render in public.


Talat Mahmood Saab surrounded by the natural beauty of Jog Falls

“Oh, that’s a great suggestion, I often miss doing odd pieces – many of them so quaint and so dear to my heart”. Said the Maestro.

For the next hour, Talat Saab took us to another world – something so private. He sang Ghazals of Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, K.L. Saigal and M.A. Rauf. When he sang Ghazals of these stalwarts, he would bow down, say humbly “gustakhi maaf” (means pardon me Sirs for venturing to imitate you). That was so touching. He ended with Tasveer teri dil mera behela nah sake gi one of his greatest and most remembered non-filmy songs.

I dropped him and the accordion player at the airport. I learnt how to be warm and humble from this great singer. I never met Talat Saab again but this encounter made a touch point in my life.

I was always fascinated by the research published by Professor Daniel Peter Loucks of Cornel University. Many of you belonging to faculty of civil engineering might have followed his text books.

One of his books that I greatly admire is “Water Resources Systems Planning and Management An Introduction to Methods, Models”. Professor Loucks wrote this 600+ page book with Eelco van Beek of Netherlands. You can download the entire book from here

Apart from his research, publications and numerous awards that he received, Professor Loucks is known as a Teacher Par Excellence. He states on his website

“In the course, I teach in public systems modeling. I attempt to make it both challenging and enjoyable.   If we are not having fun, then I have failed.   I encourage questions and arguments.  That way we all learn more about how to analyze and identify and evaluate possible solutions to public sector issues and problems”

In 1987, International Association of Water Pollution Research & Control set up an international group of experts on Systems Analyses in Water Quality Management. I was included as a member of this prestigious group. Prof Loucks was obviously listed and my name appeared right next to him (alphabetically L (loucks) to M (Modak). I was so thrilled and felt honored to be cited “next to him”. I was wondering when will I get a chance to meet the Professor.


Professor D P Loucks

I was returning from Vienna to Mumbai after an assignment from UNIDO. Vienna was under heavy snow and the flights were delayed. I was flying Swiss Air. The check-in counter was reconfirming the passenger names by a call out as some passengers were opting to shift from Swiss Air to other airlines. During these announcements, I heard a call out “Professor Loucks Please”. My head turned around and I saw a “Professorial person” in early fifty’s walking to the counter with a long overcoat. I was astonished with this coincidence.

After Professor Loucks dealt with the lady at the counter, I approached him and introduced myself. Meeting him by chance at Vienna Airport was simply amazing. Professor Loucks was in International Institute of Applied Systems Analyses in Vienna and was returning to the United States.

We grabbed two tall stools with a round table in a coffee shop. The flights were delayed by 2 hours at least.  Professor Loucks was very kind to a youngster (and nobody) like me. He listened to me attentively. I discussed with him about precipitation hydrology and ideated that the same “theory” could perhaps be used for simulating air pollutants at multiple sites in an “air shed”. I remember, when he heard me, he smiled and said “Dr Modak, you are in the right path, innovation happens when you read work done in other fields without any walls or silos. That’s what I call as “interdisciplinary thinking”.

The two hours of discussion I had with Professor Loucks became a touch point in my circular life. I gained confidence in my convictions, picked up new messages and got inspired. Professors sharp interjections in the conversations with politeness taught me the art of being open, friendly and yet critical.

I was in Washington for projects with the World Bank. I always stayed at Fairmont hotel. I love the place.

One of my colleagues from the World Bank was to see me in the lounge for a discussion. We decided to meet at 4 30 pm. I was in the lounge at 4 25 pm waiting for him.

There was a woman sitting in the chair in front of me – probably waiting for someone. She was wearing a grey colored suit. She was looking at her watch and was busy texting on her mobile.

My friend from the word bank was getting delayed. I got a call from him – “Prasad, I am stuck as boss wants me to I see him – Gimmie another 15 min please”. I said “granted”. Life in most corporates like the World Bank is often driven by the “bosses”. But after 5 min I received a SMS, “Delayed to 6 pm, but please don’t go away”. “Typical World Bank”, I muttered a bit loudly (not realizing). The woman in the front chair smiled probably understanding my irritation.


Lounge at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington DC

Just then she received a phone call. I sensed her anger and frustration as she was responding “Look Bill, I have been waiting for you at the Fairmont Lounge for quite a while now.  Let me know whether you will be coming at all. You and your folks at the World Bank have never been on time”. Her voice was raised.

She looked at me and said in an apologetic tone “Sorry, I got a bit worked up. I was expecting someone from the World Bank. I have been waiting for quite a while already and it looks like that the guy won’t show up before 6 pm”

We decided to go to the coffee shop to while away the time. The woman turned out to be a very talkative person. “What do you to Jean?” I asked “Well, I work in the field of Cleaner Production in Small and Medium Enterprises (SME). I am working as a Short Term Consultant for the World Bank in Kenya”. I introduced myself and passed Jean my name card. “Oh, that’s you then Prasad… “Jean exclaimed. I have read your work. I have been looking for you – and what a chance to meet!”

We chatted then about my experiences of working with SME clusters and debated on strategies that work and which don’t. I told her about my work in countries such as Vietnam, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines etc.

Jean was quite a meticulous person and was taking notes as I was making some “profound statements”. I got some sharp questions from her and really enjoyed intelligent conversation with this wonderful woman. I wished that the Bank folks come late or don’t even turn up.

We had two rounds of Colombian coffee. It was nearly 6 pm. And alas, I saw my friend from the World Bank walking across to us. I thought of asking Jean to join our conversations.

Just then Jean got a call from her World Bank contact. She had another animated conversation.

“OK Prasad, so venue has changed to Four Seasons. I have to go. Pity that I am not carrying my name card right now – but sure I will be chasing you” She said with a warm smile with dimples.

Her eyes while parting showed how interested she was to keep in touch and how much she had enjoyed our conversations.

Unfortunately, we never met afterwards – but we did exchange emails for a while.

But I thought that this time, the “situation” was different.  I was perhaps her touch point and I knew she would tell story of our conversations to someone.

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Halliday and Resnick


When you are young, you are in an impressionable age. People who you see around greatly influence you. You are also looking for role models that you would like to follow. But at the same time, you also want to do something different, express your passion and act accordingly. The realities of the world around often “tame” you and people with practice experience tear your world of dreams. Alas – this often leads to a life without oddities.

I studied at Balmohan Vidyamandir, a well-known Marathi medium school in Shivaji-Park in Mumbai. Physics (“Padarthvidyan) was introduced to us in the 8th standard. Physics fascinated me. I liked the sheer rationality of the subject and its importance and vast potential as a foundation to the applied world. The teachers who taught were as precise as the subject and delivered lectures intermixed with problem-solving that built our confidence and understanding about the subject of Physics.

After schooling, I joined First Year Science at Ramnarayan Ruia College. Physics was taught to us by Professors R D Gupte and Karnik. Prof Gupte covered Mechanics and Prof Karnik Heat. Prof Gupte had an impressive personality, a British accent and great oratory skills. He would walk around the stage and the podium in a rhythm. He used the blackboard to write key points and the equations. He did not follow textbooks of Indian authors (not because they were inferior) but instead introduced to us the book “Physics-I” by Halliday and Resnick – the most celebrated book on “College Physics” (Now the book is on its 10th edition with James Walker)

A combination of Prof Gupte’s style of teaching with the book by Halliday and Resnick was intoxicating. I fell in love with Physics. Professor Karnik, though equally a good teacher, seemed much more “conventional”. He taught us the subject of Heat more to do well the University examination, and did not follow Halliday & Resnick and did not have Prof Gupte’s charismatic style of delivery.

I remember we had pre-university exams at the College as “qualifier” to the main university exams. The paper on Physics was set in two parts – one by Professor Gupte and other by Professor Karnik. We were provided with two separate answer sheets for each part.  Prof Gupte had put tough questions for his Mechanics portion making us “think” while Professor Karnik’s paper on Heat was rather straightforward – i.e. if you knew the equations, all you needed was substitution of the right data or the input.

I decided to solve only Professor Gupte’ s part. The minimum marks for “passing” were 35 and I was confident to get at least 35 out of 50. So I saw no need to solve Professor Karnik’s portion for the purpose of passing – and the subject of Heat (and the way it was taught) wasn’t exciting to me. The duration of the paper was 2 hours.

I walked out of the examination hall in one hour (so as to be fair). I submitted a completed answer book for Mechanics and a blank answer book only carrying my roll number for Heat. Everybody in the hall was surprised to see my “early exit”. Most thought that I had an emotional breakdown!

Two weeks later, Professor Karnik announced a session where answer books were to be shared with marks and of course guidance was to be given for the final university exam. The lecture hall was full as attendance was compulsory. Prof Karnik was reading out the roll numbers one by one with names and the student had to go to the Dias to collect the answer book. It appeared that the overall performance wasn’t good or perhaps the marking was rather stiff as most students scored between 35 to 45 out of 100 (some were probably given “grace” marks to clear the “wall” of 35).

My roll number was 85. Professor Karnik reached Roll number 84 and then skipped calling me and moved to Roll number 86. I was shocked – why did Prof Karnik not call me? I started wondering. I thought that my submission of blank answer book for the Heat part must have made him really upset and angry.

When everybody got the answer books, Prof Karnik took a pause and then called out my roll number and name. I sheepishly walked slowly to the Dias. I was prepared to listen to his firing or harsh words.

Prof Karnik smiled instead and then held my hand and raised it high like a winner of a boxing competition. He said loudly in his characteristic squeaky voice “This boy answered only the Mechanics part and got 50 out of 50 and yet he got the highest marks in the class”.

Wow, I still remember the applause that I received by equally shocked student audience.

As I left the class like a “hero”, one of the best-looking girls approached me in the corridor. My heart started throbbing. She said “I am really impressed with your style; will you teach me physics?”. I then realized that doing well in Physics could lead such exciting possibilities!

(We met several times then at the Durga Parameshwari (more known as DP) café that was right outside the gate of Ruia college. But I hardly taught her any Physics! I was later told that she did her doctoral in Physics at the very Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where Resnick used to teach)



Cafe Durga Parameshwari as of today

Professor Gupte called me to the faculty room after this episode. He told me not to repeat such oddities. “Go and say sorry to Prof Karnik” he said softly.  He then paused and said “You seem to be really interested in Physics. Why don’t you attend series of lectures on Cosmic Rays by Professor Lavkire of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)? These lectures will be in our college in the evenings of every Monday at 6 pm”

I attended the three-lecture discourse of Professor Lavkire on Cosmic Rays. Lavkire unfolded the mystic of the subject in a language we could understand. These lectures used to end by 8 pm. I used to walk alone from Ruia college through Hindu Colony crossing the Tilak bridge to Shivaji-Park and brood over the lectures. I dreamed that one day I will become like Professor Lavkire and make a career in Astrophysics.

I joined Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay for BTech program in Civil Engineering. We had five courses on Physics in the first five semesters and great teachers like Professors S H Patil, A S Mahajan and M G Rao. These courses on Physics influenced me a lot. The first textbook was once again Physics by Halliday and Resnick.

After the five Physics courses, I thought of shifting from Civil Engineering to MSc Physics. Professor G Tyagarajan of Physics Department who was also the Institute Dean of Academic Program called me to his chamber. He knew that I belonged to a family of civil and environmental engineers and so he said “stay interested in Physics, but Physics need not be your career to earn your living. Understand the realities. You are not going to make money on Physics.”

I continued my interest in Physics by reading books by George Gamow and Richard Feynman. Gamow’s book “Thirty Years that Shook Physics” was something that still cherish and of course the book “Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman”.

I loved to read these books to get insight to the work and the lives of some of these great physicists. But I found that I was getting more interested in their personal lives than the “substance”.

In my third- year onwards I decided to specialize in environmental science and engineering. This choice was both due to my interest (due to exciting course taught by Professor S M Khopkar of Chemistry department on Environmental Pollution) and certainly due to the influence of my family. The choice of making career in environmental science and engineering seemed so natural to me.

I took four institute electives on environmental science, did a two months internship at Dorr Oliver (a well-known company doing business in process engineering and pollution control) and completed a BTech project on Anaerobic Digestion. My career in environmental management deepened further as I later did my Masters and Doctoral research. Now I spent last thirty years learning this fascinating subject.

But the first love to Physics continued and it has always stayed. I bought the three volume set of “The World of Physics” by Jefferson Hane Weaver after getting my first salary. These volumes were quite expensive to purchase (even today)


A Great Library Collection on Physics

I realized that I did not have copies of Halliday and Resnick (H&R). So very recently, I bought the two old volumes of H&R  (First edition that we had used at IIT). I picked up these copies from a street vendor selling second-hand books near the Fort area of Mumbai. But this time, I also purchased the “Solutions Manual”!

Many friends wondered why.

“Don’t tell us that at the age of sixty you are going to re-start reading these old college physics books” Few quipped.

I smiled – held the second-hand copies of Halliday and Resnick close to my nose to experience the faded fragrance and turned a few pages. The pages carried scribbles like “important”, “to ask” etc. and caricatures of the professors who taught.


I felt rather familiar and a bit nostalgic. I also realized that we badly need equivalent of Halliday and Resnick for introducing a foundation course on Environmental Science. This book like Halliday and Resnick  should hit the 10th edition!

While returning home, I decided to check the whereabouts of the good-looking girl whom I used meet at the “DP Cafe” in front of the Ramnarayan Ruia College. I thought of connecting with her and learn about her experience of being on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Now some coffee? My 20 years of Association at IL&FS Ltd


I worked for Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) in various capacities since 1996. I was their Corporate Consultant on Environment, later the Chief Sustainability Officer and in addition Head of the Knowledge Management Unit. I was also the first Dean of IL&FS Academy for Applied Development (IAAD) that was set up with a mission to put sustainability in practice.

I left IL&FS on November 30, last week relinquishing all the above positions.

I was never a full time staff or an employee of IL&FS. I continued running my own consulting and not for profit activities, teach at IIT Bombay as Professor (Adjunct) and work as an independent international consultant with UN and Multilateral/Bilateral Development Agencies. I must credit IL&FS for letting me to be a “free radical”.

This blog post is an account of my experience working with a leading Corporate with a multifarious business canvas of diverse sectors such as water, wastewater, energy, transportation, education etc.– and the value it added to my career and life.

I am also using this post to make my observations on the Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) at Financing Institutions.

P Illangovan, my buddy at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, sent me an email in 1995 to contact one Mr. Hari Sankaran at Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS). “These guys need some help to set up an Environmental & Social Management System. You could help” he said.

Illango was working as an Environmental Specialist at the Washington office of the World Bank. The World Bank was appraising a loan of around 180 million USD for private sector financing in infrastructure in India through IL&FS. As per the requirements of the Operational Policy (OP) of the World Bank, IL&FS was required to set up an Environmental & Social Management System (ESMS), prepare the required documentation, recruit staff and train them through piloting of the system on some of the infrastructure projects.

The idea was to identify environmental and social risks at various stages of the project cycle on a proactive basis, prioritize and minimize these risks by influencing the project concept and design and thereafter mitigate the residual risks through an environmental and social management plan. The residual risks were to be addressed by allocating them across the stakeholders through concession, contract obligations and covenants. The system was to be customized for Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects – that IL&FS was to develop and finance

Somehow, I did not like the company name “IL&FS”. Having just left teaching and research at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay, terms such as “Leasing” & “Financing” were alien and allergic to me. I did not contact Mr. Hari Sankaran

A month passed and I got a reminder email from Illango and then a frantic phone call. “Prasad, what’s happening? I had suggested your name to Hari and promised that you will reach him and help in the establishment of ESMS. George Varghese of Development Alternatives has already prepared a draft and you need to fix it and operationalize the ESMS at IL&FS. Unless this is done to Bank’s satisfaction, the loan will not be sanctioned. Everything else is ready except the ESMS part”

I told Illango that I did not quite like the company name.

“Come on Prasad, be serious. IL&FS is run by some great guys who understand PPP in the infrastructure business. With ESMS integration IL&FS will be able to show case how to mainstream E&S issues and influence the PPP business in the country. They will be the first movers in the E&S space and you will be part of it. At least go and see Hari for my sake, say “no” if you like but for courtesy, show up your face please” Illango said this in a rather irritated tone.

In those days, IL&FS had office at the Mahindra Towers in Worli. I called Hari’s office and fixed an appointment to see him around 11 am. “Well, let me do this meeting formality for Illango’s sake” I said to myself.


“Hurry” Sankaran

Hari Sankaran was then Senior Vice President (SVP) at IL&FS. He did not sit in a cabin. I saw him sitting on a desk with a large table lamp, with hardly any papers pending on the desk, a coffee mug and few soiled paper napkins.

“Dr Modak, we have been looking for you” He beamed. “When do we start working on the ESMS?” I was dazed with this man’s style of approaching a stranger, with utter confidence and not wasting time in the preliminaries and coming straight to the point. I thought he should be spelling his name as “Hurry Sankaran” and not “Hari”.

Hari briefed me in the next 20 minutes on ESMS, shared the base document, proposed an agenda (essentially time lines for delivery). I gave my ideas too and we had a great conversation. I sensed that I was speaking to someone already up on the curve, excited and serious about implementation of ESMS.

“Now some coffee? Hari ended the conversation. I realized that we had gelled extremely well. Meeting Hari was an important part of my destiny! Not only as a professional and but later a close friend.

Just by then, Hari received a call from Chennai. IL&FS was developing Tirupur Water Supply Project in a PPP format – one of the first PPPs in the water sector in Asian. Government of Tamil Nadu (GoTN) was the partner with support of the World Bank. Tirupur was the top textile export center of India (more than a billion US$ export then) with a cluster of 700 industries. Tirupur was “thirsty” for 185 million liters of water every day. Ground water situation was no good and water was to be pumped over a long distance from river Cauvery.

“Prasad (Hari had stopped by then calling me Dr Modak), are you free to travel with me to Chennai tomorrow? Some bureaucrats at the GoTN want to know the implication of following ESMS. You will be the best person to explain what’s in India’s environmental governance and what is the World Bank expectation. We will be back in the evening. Let us meet for the 7 am Air India flight at the airport”

I nodded yes (it was so hard to refuse)

My association with IL&FS thus started in a spurt and continued like a breeze for the next 20 years.

We implemented the ESMS and met expectations of the World Bank. While working with IL&FS, it was exciting for me to see how E&S perspectives could influence the project – its scope, alternatives, identification of preferred option including different forms of execution i.e. financing and institutional arrangements. All the interventions led to the projects advantage.

I recall projects like Ahmedabad-Mehsana Toll Road, Vadodara-Halol Toll road and Delhi-Noida Toll Bridge. E & S integration in these projects became success stories, got well documented and publicized. In case of Vadodara-Halol the route was optimized to reduce the displacement of people from 1000+ to less than 40; cattle underpasses were provided and tree transplantation was carried out for Ahmedabad-Mehsana Toll Road and high-powered citizen committees were created (one with Maneka Gandhi and other with Professor Yash Pal as chairmen), holding meeting at the construction site of Delhi-Noida Toll Bridge every month (on each side). These committees served as a watchdog on Marubeni, the contractor and over a period established cordial relationships from the confrontations in the beginning. I used to attend every citizen meeting at the site and at the both ends of the bridge.

In all these projects, those whose lands were affected were compensated at market rates and Income Generation Schemes (IGS) were designed that provided skill building and ensured sustainability in their incomes. In the RIDOR project (Roads in Rajasthan) that impacted nearly 1100 families due to land acquisition were handled sensitively and were provided with customized IGS (in addition to the compensation for the land acquired) with a follow up of a 3-year monitoring & evaluation program to adapt and ensure that the affected community received the intended benefits. The later helped IL&FS to borrow from KfW a debt at a very concessional rate and over long duration.

Many of the E&S measures implemented at these projects increased the cost of the project, albeit marginally (estimated between 1 to 2%) but gave rich dividends in terms of projects acceptability (something critical in the PPP format), reduced risks (to the lenders and investors) and led to a “brand” building. For example, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by one a “competitor” on Ahmedabad-Mehsana road was squashed by the Judge looking at the exemplary environmental & social management plan of IL&FS which would have otherwise led to 6 months of delay (costing to at least 8% increase in the project cost and loss of income from tolling).

The World Bank considered all such projects as show cases of good practices. The staff of the World Bank was taken to these sites for learning. So the agency who imposed ESMS, used the practice experience of IL&FS to build their own capacities! That was something interesting and to be proud of.

The ESMS at IL&FS expanded in 2007 to Environmental and Social Policy Framework (ESPF). This was necessary as IL&FS restructured its business into independent verticals such as IL&FS Toll Network Ltd, IL&FS Energy, IL&FS Water, IL&FS Environment etc and this required a hybrid of non-compromising core principles enshrined by Corporate Policy and adaptation of the principles into procedures with practice guidance as appropriate to each business vertical. I really enjoyed this phase of establishing and operating ESPF across the IL&FS Group. This was lots of excitement and learning

By then Hari rose to become Vice Chairman and MD of IL&FS. But he still found time to discuss E&S perspectives (now in Sustainability parlance). He was always involved and supported me. Looking back however, I realized that he was perhaps the only one in the entire organization who understood the true spirit and the benefits of E & S integration in the business. Many who were “downstream” were simply the followers, some were biased that E & S management only adds to the costs while some remained indifferent and many stayed or chose to be ignorant. We conducted several sessions on awareness at the level of CEOs and training of middle level on ESPF and appointed ESPF coordinators in each IL&FS vertical – but couldn’t get the traction that we wanted to see.  The initial “golden era” of projects such as Vadodara-Halol or Delhi-Noida toll bridge was perhaps eroded. The business models had changed with less control to “influence”

I started getting questions from the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Chief Financial Officers (CFO)s “Show me the Money”. That became my big frustration. I felt that I was wasting my time. I decided to give more time to my consulting company Environmental Management Centre and the non-profit outfit Ekonnect Knowledge Foundation. I also realized that I needed to balance work and health and spend more time to write, teach and get more connected with students and the academia.

Many financing institutions today are adopting ESMS like systems like IL&FS. I had opportunities to establish ESMS at other financial institutions such as National Bank of Egypt, IDCOL in Bangaldesh, CIMB in Malaysia etc as a Consultant. In most instances, the reason for ESMS was due to pressure or a push from the investor like the World Bank or International Finance Corporation (IFC). These systems were created for the sake of compliance and for mobilizing moneys.

The emphasis of the ESMS has been  generally to address risks but rarely to seize the opportunities. So, systems do get created, but are used on a perfunctory basis (more like tick marks) and do not add “value” to the investments/projects/partners. We need therefore a paradigm shift and convincing case studies, especially for the CEOs/CFOs.

On November 30, when I was leaving my office on the 9th floor of IL&FS, I was thinking of walking to Hari’s desk to say “good bye”. I saw him at a distance, busy on his cell phone, with hair now grey and a pair of spectacles drooping on his nose. The past 20 years had aged him a lot like me.

I decided however not to see him. I was afraid that if I see him, he would ask “how about some coffee?” and start some exciting conversations. These conversations could be so engaging that I may perhaps change my mind

So, instead I walked straight to the elevators and exited quietly from the ground floor, rather unnoticed.

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