Remembering Guru Das Agarwal

Professor G D Agarwal

I came across Professor G D Agarwal’s name when I was in the final year of BTech in Civil Engg at IIT Bombay. This was year 1978. I was researching on where to do a Masters in Environmental Engineering. My batch-mate Renu Gera who had moved from IIT Kanpur to IIT Bombay, recommended IIT Kanpur and mentioned Professor G D Agarwal. “He is a very senior Professor and a rather strict and a strong personality. But he is the right person to write to” she said.

I wrote a letter to Prof Agarwal on a post card asking about the Master’s program in Environmental Engineering at IIT Kanpur. I asked how this program compares with some of the international graduate programs, especially in the United States. Honestly, I did not expect a response.

In the next two weeks, I received a letter from Professor Agarwal, typed on the letterhead of Civil Engineering Department of IIT Kanpur. The letter was very considerate to my questions and elaborated the curriculum and ended stating that Master’s program at IIT Kanpur was comparable to most of the top masters programs in the United States. Professor Agarwal encouraged me to apply to IIT Kanpur.

Eventually, I joined the Masters Program at IIT Bombay. By then Professor P Khanna had joined IIT Bombay from Roorkee University and I thought that I will be at good hands by working under his guidance.

One day, while sitting in Professor Khanna’s office, a person walked in, wearing a simple dress. I saw Professor Khanna rising from his chair and touching his feet with respect. “Oh, stop this Purushottam” said the stranger. He was clearly embarrassed.

Professor Khanna then introduced me and said “Prasad, meet Professor G D Agarwal of IIT Kanpur”. That is how we met for the first time. It was July, 1979.

In January 1980, Professor Khanna called me to his room. “Prasad, I need you to support Professor G D Agarwal for a one week training program on Wastewater treatment. He needs an assistant to help him to handle the logistics like reproduction of course materials and ensure that the participants are well looked after. This will be good opportunity for you to be with Professor and learn”. At that time, I was completing my Masters dissertation.

I readily agreed to Professor Khanna’s proposition. I later came to know that Professor Agarwal had resigned from IIT Kanpur due to his differences with the Administration. A bit expected I said to myself.

My job started with a task to receive Professor Agarwal at the Mumbai Central Station and reach him to the IIT Guest house. He was arriving by Rajdhani express from New Delhi. I went half hour before the arrival of the train.

Some of you may be aware that many times, there are touts moving on the Railway platforms who do all kinds of tricks to whisk away young boys by administrating an anaesthetic. As these touts noticed me lingering alone on the platform, they circled around. Indeed, I was in trouble. Just then Rajdhani express came thundering in and the passengers started alighting. I was already a bit dosed with the anaesthetic and feeling giddy.

I had someone gripping my hand firmly “Prasad Modak, here I am. You seem to be in some trouble”. This was a strong voice and the person was Professor G D Agarwal. He was just in time for me. As we traveled to the Guest House of IIT Bombay, Professor Agarwal explained to me the chemicals used in anaesthetic, cleaned my palms with his handkerchief and summed up saying that I was just lucky to escape abduction. Indeed, I was lucky,

In the next five days, I was an obedient assistant to Professor G D Agarwal. He gave me his set of notes that I got neatly typed on the cyclostyling paper (a duplicating technique only known now to the “old generation”!). I used to get cyclostyling done at a place called Datye Copiers and Ammonia Prints near to the Dadar (Western) railway station.

Lectures by Professor Agarwal were so amazing that I still cherish. His style of teaching was “minimal theory”, just to introduce the “basic science” but focus more on infusing the practice. Clearly he was more of a hands on person, “action oriented” (unlike most of us!), very precise and rational, and rather explicit and opiniated in drawing conclusions or making summary statements.   He was the sole speaker for all the 5 days – and the participants loved his style of course management. There were not just lectures but also exercises. I understood his personality and convictions in those 5 days. Professor took a good liking for me and spent time advising me on my career post the day long lecture sessions.

Right after this encounter, I went to New Delhi to present a paper at the annual convention of the Indian Water Works Association (IWWA). I met Professor Agarwal in one of the technical sessions. He presented a paper on the true residence time at the clarifiers in water treatment plants using simple tracers. I liked his work as it blended theory and practice and opened up a discussion on the inlet-outlet arrangements and shape of the clarifiers and strategies on how to improve on the hydraulic efficiency and sedimentation rates. (Today, I call this as a “consequential” research)

Looking back, this was the progeny from the Berkley school. Professor Agarwal graduated in civil engineering from the University of Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee) and later obtained a PhD in environmental engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in a record time of 2 years. His PhD thesis was on  “Electrokinetic Phenomena in Water Filtration,” with Professor E A Pearson. Those were the golden days at Berkeley with presence of Professors like David Jenkins and several others. When I asked Professor Agarwal, how did he complete his Ph D research in a short time, he said that it was sheer difficulty of managing vegetarian food in those days that made him work hard and harder!

During the IWWA convention in Delhi, Professor G D asked me whether I could accompany him to Kandhla, his farm in Muzaffarnagar district. I said “Well Sir, I will have re-book my railway ticket to Mumbai, but I will do it.” I remember I placed a STD trunk call home from IIT Delhi Guesthouse and spoke to my father. I stood in a long queue at New Delhi Railway station to re-book my seat.

When we reached the farm in Kandhla, Professor G D took me to a garage or outhouse like structure. He asked me to open the locks and raise the rolling metal shutter. Inside the room, all I saw was books. They were stacked all over and there were two stools right at the entrance. “Prasad, you will sit here” said the Professor pointing to one of the stools. And over the next three days, Professor G D introduced to me some of great books in environmental engineering, his notes and assignments while at the University of Berkeley. It was an opportunity I got that I will never forget – listening to his wise words. In this collection of books, I came across signatures of Harvey Ludwig, another great environmental engineer, who also studied at the University of Berkeley. (Subsequently I met Harvey in Bangkok and we spoke about Guru Das Agarwal, as he knew him).

Professor Agarwal interacted with me during my doctoral research at Asian Institute of Technology I Bangkok. He was the member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board then. He invited me to work with him on River Ganga after returning to India. And I did.

Professor G D resigned however due to difference of opinion with Chairman Niloy Choudhuri.  Professor Niloy Choudhuri was more of a policy & strategy person while Prof Agarwal was a person of action.

Later, I had opportunity to work with him on an assignment in Dhaka for the Government of Bangladesh in framing the national regulations on environment. There were occasions where we were together as speakers in training programmes, seminars and conferences. I vividly remember sessions we did at the Administrative Staff College of India.

Professor Agrawal’s students remember him with admiration, awe and affection. In 2002, his former students at IIT-Kanpur conferred on him the Best Teacher Award. He has guided many Masters and Doctoral students who are now leaders in the field of environmental engineering and science. Among his prominent students was the late Anil Agarwal, the pioneering founder of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi. He helped mentor well-known development activists including: Dunu Roy (IIT Bombay,’67) of Hazards Centre, New Delhi, Ravi Chopra (IIT-Bombay,’68) of People’s Science Institute, Dehra Doon and Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay awardee and founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh.

Professor Agrawal embraced ‘sanyas’ at Sri Vidya Mutt in the 79th year of his age. After ‘diksha’, he became Swami Gyanswaroop Sanand.

In his sanyas phase, I was not in regular touch with him and used to see him occasionally – mostly by accident. When he once addressed me as Dr Modak, I remember telling him to call me Prasad as before. He smiled then and said “Well Sir, I will call you Prasadji. Do stay in touch – will you?

Unfortunately, I could not remain in touch with Professor G D. We never met after this last and brief encounter.


GD was notable for a number of fasts undertaken to stop many projects on River Ganga. His fast in 2009 led to the damming of the Bhagirathi River being stopped.

GD lived a Gandhian lifestyle in his spartan, two-room cottage in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh. He swept his own floors, washed his own clothes and cooked his own meals. He retained only a few possessions and dresses in handspun handwoven khadi cloth. These are the deliberate choices of a devout Hindu with respect for simplicity in living and reverence for nature.

GD died on 11 October 2018, after being on an indefinite fast since 22 June 2018, demanding the government act on its promises to clean and save river Ganga.

 


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Text in italics is sourced from http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/dr-g-d-agrawal-scientist-environmentalist-and-rishi authored by Pavitra Singh

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The Final Take-off

 

While I was studying at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, I received a letter from Capt. Apte of Air India that I should meet him at hotel Rama Tower on Silom Road. He wanted me  to collect a food parcel that my parents had sent. Capt. Apte suggested 11 am Sunday to meet. This was in 1981.

I wasn’t familiar about Bangkok and did not know where hotel Rama Tower was located – so I asked a Thai friend. He told me that it was simple –“take AIT bus and at the last stop; get down to take city bus no 15. After few minutes you will hit on Silom road and you will see a 20 storied hotel on your left – that’s Rama Tower” He said. I decided to leave early so that I reach on time.

I took bus no 15 as instructed but couldn’t see a 20 storied building for a while. After 20 minutes of ride, when a tall building appeared on the left, I got down. But to my horror, that tall building was not Rama Tower but a Hospital! When I inquired, I was told that I was almost right (!)  but was in the opposite direction (!!). My Thai friend had forgotten to tell me to cross the road first and then take Bus 15! So, I crossed over and queued for Bus no 15 , now in the right direction. I reached Rama Tower 60 minutes late wading through Bangkok’s traffic. It was already drizzling.

I used the house phone of the hotel to reach Capt. Apte. He wasn’t in the room and I realized that he must have stepped out after waiting for me for an hour. I sat waiting at the lounge and left a message at the reception. I knew this was going to be quite some wait.

After another hour a short man approached me and asked  “Are you by any chance Prasad Modak? ”and when I nodded, he shook hands with me and said that he was Capt. Apte of Air India. I was expecting a tall person with a handlebar mustache  with a bunch of air hostesses around. I was a bit disappointed to see someone “not Captain like” and instead a simple and friendly man.

I went along with him to collect the food parcel. Just then the cockpit crew entered the room. They were all set to play a game of the bridge with Capt. Apte.

In the meanwhile, the rain had paced up and it was showering rather heavily. We looked outside the window as we heard the thunder. There was a clear sign of flooding.

“Prasad, I suggest you wait in the room– let this rain subside, else you will get stuck” said Capt. Apte. He was right. I decided to stay on and instead of playing bridge we all got into conversations. I noticed that his crew called him “Chotu” because he was barely 5ft 4 inches tall.  So apt, I said to myself.

I left after two hours as we saw that the buses were now moving on the streets.

I returned to AIT rather late. My friend Narendra Shah, who is now a Professor at IIT Bombay, asked me the reason. I explained the mess, the rain and then about Capt. Chotu Apte.

After some pause I said “Naren, I think I am marrying his daughter”. Naren was surprised. He asked me whether I knew that he had a daughter in the first place. I said I don’t know as we never spoke about family, but something tells me that I am going to be close to this man for the rest of his life. I still remember this strange conversation we had in October,

In the summer of 1982, I got engaged to Kiran Apte, Capt. Chotu Apte’s daughter. We got married in December 1982. The mistake in taking the wrong bus no 15 and the torrential rain thereafter was perhaps a providence and for a purpose.  Some things are often pre-decided.

In his suit in Rama Tower (L-R)  Mahesh Athavale, Sayona George, Kiran Modak, Capt Apte and me 

In the family, Capt. Chotu Apte was known as “Daddy” . He became a Daddy to me after I lost my father in the same very year.  He not only supported me financially when most needed but taught me how to live life for others – without saying anything.

I had occasions to fly with Daddy on few sectors of Air India. Sitting in the seat of “check pilot” with he commanding the aircraft was a great experience. I used to think that Captains who fly at 40000 ft must be understanding the “ultimate truth” and hence should live like a sthitapradgyna (detached but yet connected).  I don’t know about other Captains, but Daddy was indeed a case of sthitapradgyna. He used to often talk about the vision of northern lights and the “dim fireworks” in the skies while crossing the Atlantic.” You experience and see God in these visions” He said.

Daddy lived in poverty when young, He used to sleep on a footpath on one of the streets of Shivaji Park that I cross even today. But he painstakingly worked hard to become a pilot in Air India from a position of a radio officer. He joined Air India in one of the early batch of pilots in 1950s and became one of the first Commanders. His Air India colleagues used to say that it always used to be a funny sight to see this “chotu” maneuvering the giant Jumbo Jet.

Daddy was not just a popular pilot, but was well known for his smooth landing of the aircraft. No wonder he was a preferred Air India commander (besides the great Capt. Maharaj Godbole, a 6ft 2 inches captain in contrast! ) by all top personalities and politicians. We have in collections, letters written to him by JRD Tata, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai etc. appreciating his flying skills.

Daddy lived and always wanted to live a simple life as compared to many in Air India. He drove Cortina a 1600 cc automatic Ford car. When he would be on the wheel, the car used to glide like an aircraft. He loved playing bridge and play a game of chess with my son Pranav. But more than anything he enjoyed beer and wine sessions with friends. That was the phase post retirement.

With a glass of wine

Whenever I used to return from my travels abroad we used to have a beer and wine session at his house. He had a great collection of beer glasses made out of Pewter with wooden base that he had shopped in Singapore. I used to tell him my travel stories that were many times entertaining and he loved to listen, especially those from Cairo – a city he had fond memories.

In 1992, Daddy suffered a massive heart attack and had to undergo a bye-pass surgery with Dr Nitu Mandke, one of the top cardiac surgeons of those days. Dr Mandke was an extremely busy surgeon and getting a date of surgery from him was very difficult. But when I approached him, he said “tell me Dr Modak, who is this father in law of yours? – Must be a well-known person as I am getting so many phone calls for him from so many important  people; I will operate on him asap – don’t worry”. At that time, I realized how much daddy was “connected” and was quietly helping people without talking about it. I have yet to learn and practice his style of helping.

On the day of bye-pass surgery, at 5 am in the morning Dr Mandke asked me to meet Daddy and ask him his last wish. He said the probability of success was just about 60% given the precarious condition of his heart. I remember I stood by him, next to his bed, to explain the situation in Hinduja Hospital. He was about to be “towed” to the Operation Theater. “Oh” he said. “Well then this is just like taking off from the Hong Kong airport during a typhoon”. He had no last wish to express.

The operation was successful and Dr Nitu Mandke was extremely happy.  Several years passed by after operation with no major concerns except Daddy’s LV function of the heart gradually reduced and reached close to 22%.

In 2010, I was to fly to Kuala Lumpur for a 3-day meeting and Daddy asked me if we could do a beer session prior my leaving. I was busy in preparation and hence said “well, its just 3 days Daddy; will be back with interesting stories and let us meet the next day I arrive in Mumbai”. “Of course,” he said “Work comes first”

My flight landed from Kuala Lumpur at 1 30 am in the morning. But just as I reached home, we received a frantic call from my mother-in-law  to rush as she had found Daddy lying on the floor in the kitchen. We rushed. His house was just 5 minutes away.

By the time we reached, Dr Hemant Shinde, a neighbor and a well-known anesthetist was standing next to Daddy’s body lying on the floor. He looked at me and he didn’t need to say anything as I understood the situation. Daddy had passed away due to a massive heart attack.

While we all were in deep grief, I realized that for Capt. Chotu Apte, it was a final take off –a bit unusual – as this time there was no landing going to be!

The Family (L-R) Prasad, Meera Apte, Pranav, Daddy, Devika and Kiran

Daddy passed away in 2010. I wrote this blog just to cherish memories of a warm and honest person who influenced my life.


Cover image sourced from https://bn.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E0%A6%9A%E0%A6%BF%E0%A6%A4%E0%A7%8D%E0%A6%B0:VT-ESC_A320-232_Air_India_(5598504534).jpg


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You, Me and Mr. Phileas Fogg

During my school days, when I read the book by the French writer Jules Verne “Eighty Days Around the World”, I was most impressed by the character Phileas Fogg. Phileas Fogg was a rich British gentleman living in London and in solitude. Despite his wealth, Fogg lived a modest life with habits carried out with mathematical precision. For instance, Fogg dismissed his former valet, James Forster, for bringing him shaving water at 84 °F (29 °C) instead of 86 °F (30 °C). He hired Frenchman Jean Passepartout as a replacement.

I was fascinated by Fogg’s “perfect” and “precise” life. His adventure of going around the world in 80 days was another inspiration. I started to behave like Phileas Fogg and carried a thermometer when I went to the bathroom and check the temperature of the hot water in the bucket while mixing hot and cold water. I ensured that I bathed with water of 31 0C temperature. I started counting the number of steps I would take to reach my school and remained close to the average number of 887 steps. I wouldn’t cross the road and say hello to friends as this would mean a deviation to what was supposed to be. When in college, I ate food that had a fixed composition of raw and cooked portions, 70:30, to be precise and I ensured that total calorie intake was 1600 on weekdays and 1800 on weekends. My mother and house cook had a tough time due to my insistence on the precise way of eating.

As I grew older I realized that living a precision life like Phileas Fogg was impossible. The real world threw so many challenges and this led to detours and deviations. My life became patchy somewhat with no clear and steady goals and targets set for accomplishment. Life simply rolled on like a wind wheel.

I studied environmental science and engineering (because I was deeply  interested in the subject and had no career rationale), started my career in marketing pollution control equipment (left as I got a bit nauseated) and then moved to engineering consulting that I liked. I decided to take a break for doctoral research however as I discovered some research problems and needed a “pause”. The next step was to join a position for teaching, research and consulting at an academic institution that I did. In few years however, I realized that I wanted to move faster and closer to the real world and the institute I was working had a lot of inertia and a pride in isolating from reality.

I enjoyed international work as I loved to travel. Becoming an entrepreneur was always my dream and so I started my own business while working with the world of Corporates and financing institutions. I did not prepare a business plan for my company.  I set up a not-profit organization focusing on awareness, training and eco-entrepreneurship that had less clarity on the objectives. Nothing was planned like how Phileas Fogg did when he prepared his itinerary to travel across the world.

(My wife says that if I had the clarity and doggedness in planning my life, then I could have become a Vice President of Asian Development Bank enjoying the power, money and retirement benefits! Alas – I missed the boat!)

Few years ago, I met with a smart Sri Lankan bureaucrat in Tokyo who worked for Asian Productivity Organization. She shared with me her plan of life that had clear definition of goals, objectives and targets prepared starting from her graduation till date. “Dr Modak, I planned my life ahead of time” she said while sharing with me a well-articulated document. I saw that this lady had a perfect plan in place to guide and track her life and assess accomplishments. “And where do you stand Ms. today?” I asked. She told me that she was doing extremely well and was two years ahead of her targets.

“ But the plan cannot be static Dr Modak” She explained. “Plans must be dynamic, and you need to check whether goals and objectives are still relevant and whether targets set were realistic. So, I keep adapting my plan every two years based on the new situations”. I thought this made a perfect sense.

I realized that this is exactly happened to Phileas Fogg when he undertook his journey around the earth in 80 days. Initially, he had made a meticulous plan of travel that included destinations, stopovers and modes of travel but then he had to deviate and innovate when he met with several surprises on his way. For instance, he encountered characters like Detective Fix, a young Indian woman Aouda and an Elephant in India who were not part of his original plan.

Mr Fogg’s Route across the World

I was unhappy however that I did not follow the precision and perfection of Philias Fogg nor the adaptive targets approach of the Sri Lankan lady.  I talked about my frustration to my Professor friend.

Professor had another view. He said that planning is certainly needed but the extent to which you stress about the targets must be controlled – else there could be frustration.

(I remembered that while the SriLankan lady looked happy about her accomplishments, she was stressed due to “continuous self-assessment” against the targets she had set.)

Professor elaborated and following “bullet points” emerged from his discourse

  • Make a plan but its ok to deviate from your plans from time to time
  • Change the targets if they are no longer serving you
  • It’s not so much about planning every detail of your life but learning to enjoy the process
  • Each new experience (whether it was part of the plan or not) helps you grow as a person and teach you what it is that you want out of life

“So, Dr Modak, there is absolutely nothing wrong with planning your life! What can go wrong is your strong attachment to a plan” Professor lit his cigar and continued to explain citing his example.

“I am kind of addicted to plan my day before I start my work. I do this in the form of a checklist of “to do things” with a colleague and plan what is to be done in the right sequence or priority on that day. Many actions need to be delegated and that needs to be done upfront with some guidance given to the colleagues. Then at the end of the day, I sit with my colleague once again to take a stock and understand the status of “to do’s; find reasons why? especially for important things if they could not be done. A strategy to remedy the situation is then prepared and all this rolls into the next day’s checklist of “to do”.”

“So its “micro-planning” that I would recommend you to follow. Certainly, you need to prepare a broad long term plan – but let it not intimidate you or suppress the opportunities of oddities”.

I liked the idea.

Professor extinguished his cigar and said

“A person who plans meticulously does not deviate. But this person will never be creative”

He left the room with these deep words.

You all may know that due to all the mess and surprises, Fogg finally reaches one day late to London. The following day Fogg apologizes to Aouda for bringing her with him, since he now has to live in poverty and cannot support her. Aouda confesses that she loves him and asks him to marry her.

As Passepartout notifies a minister, he learns that he is mistaken in the date – it is not 22 December, but instead 21 December. Because the party had travelled eastward, they had gained one day upon crossing the International Date Line. Passepartout informs Fogg of his mistake, and Fogg hurries to the Reform Club just in time to meet his deadline and win the wager of £20,000.

I realized that Mr. Perfect Phileas Fogg couldn’t execute his meticulous plan to the perfection he would have loved to; but his handling of the situations “creatively” led to winning the wager and even better a deal as he got Ms. Aouda as partner to his life.

Remember what Author Michael Gellert said: “Striving for perfection is often confused with the quest for fulfillment: we think that if we can become perfect or create perfect things or situations, we will be happy.”

So happiness need not be linked to perfection.

Mr.  Phileas Fogg was a man of precision and perfection but finally the imperfections in the journey around the world made him a happy and a successful man.

I thought of letting my wife know.

 


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Photos in Blue Halo

Most people hate the occasion of saying a good bye. Saying good-bye can be heart-wrecking – whether your separation is temporary or over a long time. We as people are so wired to each other –– that any separation from someone you love or adore is painful.

While saying good-bye, people often hug, kiss and resist parting. Some are formal and do a handshake but the palms – moist or firm as they can be – communicate their feelings.

There is also a feeling whether you will see your friend once again – concerns on safety in travel and health risks due to our lifestyles have been some of the reasons. So we return from the airports, railway stations and bus stands with a heavy heart. We feel relieved when we receive the message that “all is well” or “reached alright” from your friend or the beloved after reaching the destination.

Some people carry gifts as a surprise when saying good bye. This makes the event of departure memorable. Some present flowers and take a photo as a memory to post on the Facebook.

Many suggest that instead of saying good bye say, “so long”. This expression hints a “promise sentence” such as “So long, I’ll see you later or we’ll meet again…”, indicating that this is only a temporary separation. You feel a bit positive when someone says “So long pal” to you. And I prefer this expression.

I often do a trick when I see off my children at the airport. Both my kids live in the United States. While saying “So long”, I tell them that it is very likely there could be a visit from me in the next three months.  My  fib just comforts them, calms down and takes away the pain of separation. But its strange that sometimes my travel to the US actually does happen!

But saying goodbye happens not just when you see someone off. You also say a goodbye when you leave school, university or your job. We call this event as farewell. Farewell is a fancy or a grand way to say goodbye. A farewell is also an expression of good wishes at the parting. Farewell is more for a longer separation like going overseas or leaving an institution. Generally, people give speeches during the farewell. I have attended farewells where I had an opportunity and the honor to listen to some of the memorable speeches.

Some speeches made at farewell make you think differently and understand hidden dimensions of the personality not earlier known. Farewell speeches are also opportunities to express the gratitude. Speech by Steve Jobs is one such example.

I went to meet my Professor on Sunday for coffee and conversations. His wife ushered me to his study where he was flipping an album of photographs and smoking a cigar.

He handed over the album to me – “Take a look Dr Modak, I will just do a quick shave and come back in five minutes”.

I browsed the photo album. It had photographs taken at the departure area of the Mumbai International Airport. Some of the photos were featuring Professors colleagues and friends. Oddly, he was not in any of the pictures. I wondered why the Professor maintained a separate album just for the occasions of good bye! Could there be any special reason? I was a bit puzzled.

As Professor was taking more time than expected, I decided to spend more time on the photos as I browsed the Album.

And I noticed a strange thing. In almost each photo, there was someone in a “blue halo”. The halo was not very explicit around the person in spot, but a closer look at the photo showed its presence. I decided to ask Professor about the halo as I saw him stepping in.

“Good question Dr Modak, And you being a man of detail,  I was expecting this question”

Professor continued and spoke to me in a rather low voice

“I don’t know whether you realized that all persons you see in Blue Halo are no more today. The photographer I use for these Goodbye occasions has a mystic camera that brings a blue halo to the person who will be the first one to die after the shot is taken”

I just couldn’t believe this! Now I understood why Professor didn’t want to be in these photos!

I looked at the photos once again where I knew some people.

Oh – This is Professor Raghavan in the photo taken on April 5, 2002. I remembered that Prof Raghavan expired on June 27 in the same year due to a heart disease that was not earlier detected. And this is Ms. Jose Felicia, Head of UN convention on biodiversity for Africa waving a good bye to Professor. She visited Mumbai in October 2004; I remembered that she met with a fatal accident in the outskirts of Nairobi during Christmas in the same year. This was really an unfortunate event and was shocking to all of us.

I couldn’t resist but ask “Very strange and simply unbelievable Professor. Who is this Photographer? And is he still around?

Professor smiled and said “I generally don’t show this Album to people. Many would then ask me about the Photographer and his mystic camera. But Dr Modak, he is still around. He is pretty old now. I am sorry I cannot share with you his details”

I understood that this information was going to remain as a secret. Professor appeared rather firm.

Next week, I was hosting a delegation from EU on Business and Sustainability that was headed by my good friend Olivia from Spain. We had conferences and field visits over a week. Professor joined us for the farewell dinner that I hosted at Bungalow No 9 in Bandra. There were scintillating speeches by the participants, all appreciating the visit and opportunities for experience sharing. Olivia was exceptional, and her farewell speech expressed her passion on the subject of sustainability. She articulated her future plans of cooperation. I presented her a silk scarf as a token of appreciation that she gladly accepted.

As I escorted Olivia to Uber, she paused before entering the taxi. In a soft voice she said “Prasad, I am not too sure whether I will see you again. Just a month ago, I was diagnosed for a throat cancer. It’s in an advanced stage. The doctors have told me that I have a little time left to live – may be another 3 months”

I was shocked to hear these parting words. Olivia hugged and kissed on my cheeks “Thanks for the scarf Prasad. I will cherish these memories”. She said while closing the door. She had wrapped the scarf around her neck – like ring-fencing her throat cancer.

She then lowered the glass window of the car and said “Nobody knows. Not even Professor”. Uber drove out of the Bungalow No 9.

I didn’t know what to say. My heart was heavy. And I was in tears.

On the day of departure, Professor volunteered to come to the airport to see everybody off. I was delighted.

We all met at the airport and assembled outside the departure gates. It was a Sunday and 9 pm at night. Flight to London was at 1 am and so we decided to take couple of photographs as a memory. But Professor was  not around although he had promised. Shortly I received a call that he cannot make it due to an urgent call from PMO. Typical of Professor I said to myself.

As we were taking group photographs, we decided to request someone to handle one of our smartphones and take a good quality picture – we didn’t want to rely on the clumsy Selfies!

One oldish man was standing around. He volunteered to help us. He said he will use his own camera and not charge us for taking picture as it was his hobby. We agreed.

He had a pretty old styled conventional looking camera. He took good many pictures of the group. He then walked to me and said “Your Professor friend asked me to attend today”

I was surprised that he recognized us. Oh, so this was that mysterious photographer then.

I asked for his visiting card.

The man said he does not keep any visiting cards.

“Don’t worry. I will send the pictures to the Professor. Please collect from him – all my complements Sir”. He seemed to be in a hurry and disappeared in the crowd.

Two days later, I called Professor and told him how I met “his” photographer at the airport and asked when can I pick up the photographs.

I knew that the photos will show a blue halo around Olivia. Oh, I will miss her I said to myself.

Professor wasn’t very enthusiastic. “I am a bit busy Dr Modak” he said, “Let me check – I probably misplaced the photos”.

“Well Professor, please don’t lose these precious photos.  I won’t be surprised if I see a blue halo across Olivia’s face” I told him.

I didn’t want to tell the reason as it was a secret not shared by Olivia with anybody.

There was however a stoned silence.

“I don’t think so” Professor said – “As far as I recall, there is no halo around Olivia’s face”

He sounded a bit stiff and abrupt.

I started wondering. Who could it be then? I thought about others and ruled out almost everyone.

And then a strange thought occurred in my mind.

Was it me? and was that the reason why Professor did not want to share with me the photos?


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Serendipity

Meeting people by chance in strange situations are encounters worth recounting.

You share with someone an umbrella and walk along on the street when it showers suddenly, or you land with someone interesting in the two seat cabin of a giant Ferris wheel –  or you get stuck in an elevator and get into conversations that help lighten up or destress.

In my life, I have gone through such situations.

I present to you today two interesting encounters with women – that I never met again.

I wish I had more such encounters to write about. Do you have a story to tell?


Arya Bhavan in Matunga is a place worth a visit if you want to savor authentic south Indian food. There is always a beeline of food lovers outside this cozy restaurant run by Muthuswamy.

It was a Sunday morning. I went to Arya Bhavan for my breakfast. There was a long queue outside. The Chief told me to hang on and wrote down my name.

“Five minutes Sir”. He said in an assuring tone.

But it took almost 15 minutes of waiting that I got invited inside. There was a two-seater table in a corner and one woman, probably in the age group of  30 to 40 was already sitting there. The Chief asked me to take the empty seat opposite her.

In places like Arya Bhavan, you have to follow what the Chief says. I was alone this time and so I was quite indifferent to where I sit. In the busy times, if you go in a group, you may have to split and occupy different tables to get somehow “accommodated”.  Idea in places like Arya Bhavan is to eat and not to chat.

Arya Bhavan provides an authentic traditional south Indian menu . Many of the items they serve are not generally seen in the menu cards of standard south Indian restaurants.

Menu Card at Arya Bhavan

I started looking at the menu card and was a bit lost in deciding what to order.

The woman sitting opposite on the table was watching me. She was having Brahmin Idlis. When I looked at her I saw that she was smiling.

“I know it’s so hard to choose Mr.” She said.

I said “Well, I am looking for a dosa. Can you recommend?”

“Oh, easy then. Ask for a Moong Dal Dosa. It’s a Sunday special at the Aryas” She smiled. “I am sure you will love my choice”. She spoke in an enthusiastic tone.

Her recommendation was perfect. And I did enjoy the Moong Dal Dosa.

We started talking. She told me that she had just dropped her son in the tuition classes right above Arya Bhavan and was having her breakfast, waiting for the son to return. Today was his last tuition class. Her husband was a sailor and away on the sea. They lived in Chembur.

“My son doesn’t like to eat here. He feels that this place is too crowded. So, I have asked to parcel Appam with coconut stew lavil. He will eat at home.” she explained.

I ordered for filter coffee and we chatted more.  She recommended me places where I could eat good south Indian food and finally summed up saying – but nothing to beat this place Mr.– Muthuswamy’s Arya Bhavan. She had a tam bram (Tamil Brahmin) accent.

“Oh, I must step out now. Please enjoy your coffee. See you – may be another time in Arya” The Woman got up looking at her watch.

I  liked chatting with this strange woman on a Sunday morning. She was a like a fresh breeze to me. Her enthusiasm was so charming.

I asked for a second round of filter coffee and thought more about her.

When I went to the counter to pay, the counter manager said, “Sir, your bill is already settled by Mrs. Iyengar”. I was surprised.

The Chief gave me the menu card while exiting. “Madam asked me to give you” he said

I took a look at the Menu. It had a few dishes underlined.

Oh, those were the recommendations of Mrs. Iyengar for me.


Sometimes I go alone to watch a movie at the PVR Cinema in Lower Parel’s Big Bazaar in Mumbai. I  had booked tickets for the Friday evening show of “Magic of Belle Isle” staring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen.

I was a bit late. I picked up a large cup of buttered popcorns from the foyer and reached my seat. It was already dark, and I couldn’t clearly see the person sitting next to me. Probably there was a lady– Looked like she was alone like me as seat next to her was empty.

I placed my box of popcorns in the “cup holder” in between our seats.

The movie was great, and I was enjoying every bit of it. I was sampling the butter popcorns and watchful that I was not making too much noise.

There is a lovely scene in the movie when Virginia Madsen and Morgan Freeman are sitting next to the lake at night. Virginia Madsen asks Morgan Freeman about what kind of woman charms him. Morgan Freeman says that he loves a woman who walks into the room like her.

When Virginia asks “describe how does she walk in” then Morgan Freeman explains that he finds her walking in like a breeze of hot air – streaming in – after the rains.  A piece of Pathetique (Sonata No. 8 of Beethoven) is played on the piano in the background and that makes the conversation so emotional. [Do watch this video clip to experience]

My neighbor on the next seat was so engrossed and touched by this scene and the conversations. While her eyes were locked to the big screen, she put her hand in the popcorn cup and picked up a handful of popcorns to eat, oblivious to the fact that “the cup belonged to me”. And for the rest of the movie she continued sampling “my popcorns”. I refrained eating and let her.

There was an intermission and the lady realized the mix up she did with the popcorns.

She apologized “Sir, I am really sorry. I was so carried away. I did not realize that those were your popcorns! I was so engrossed in the movie”

I said, “Never mind Ms.”.

The lady was wearing spectacles with a chain and a Mizoram shawl. There was a nice aroma of a musky perfume. We got into a conversation.

She spoke about Morgan Freeman, his movies and how much she loves his acting. I enjoyed her analyses as many of her views aligned with me. It was nice to have a conversation with a strange and sophisticated woman – and sharing similar views.

She kept talking although the intermission ended, lights faded, and the movie resumed.

“The best one of Freeman’s is the Bucket List. What’s your view? ”  She whispered.

A man from the row behind said “Ssha…”  showing his displeasure; asking the lady to shut up.

She shut up and continued to sample “my” popcorns.

When the movie was over, we came out of the theater.

“Can you hang on for a moment please? I have to get something” She said.

The lady took couple of minutes to return. She asked, “do you have a car?”

Was she asking for a lift? I thought that this would be great opportunity to continue more conversations with the lady.

I said “Yes”

“and are you driving yourself or do you have a driver with you?”. That was her next question.

I said “I have a driver with me”

She opened up her Mizoram shawl that she had draped around her and passed me a large cup of butter popcorns – like a treasure that was hidden.

“This is for you Sir. Enjoy eating the popcorns that I owe – Eat when they are hot while your driver takes you home”

I was surprised by her interesting and wonderful gesture.

It had started to drizzle a bit. For a while I thought she resembled Virginia Madsen in the Magic of Isle Belle – as she breezed away fading in the crowd and waving at me a good bye

And I thought someone was playing a piece of Pathetique in the background


Cover page taken from https://aminoapps.com/c/btsarmy/page/blog/serendipity-jimin-oneshot/6PJM_EPBszupemxM5GGorKn1jK7JLPMprB


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Communicating Creatively

 

Yesterday, in my office we had a session on how to make effective presentations or an engagement. Although we did discuss the “PowerPoint”, the idea was to go beyond – i.e. how do we plan our communique in view of the target audience while meeting the objectives.

Generally, in most of our engagements, we use PowerPoint slides. But showing slides should not be the only tool and in some situations, we may not use slides at all!

We may like to speak more than (or “other than”) what is on the slides, tell stories and ask questions to make the engagement more interactive. We may play an interesting video to discuss and, in some occasions, play a game or use an activity.

But despite all careful planning, you must be ready to deal with surprises as well. Here is my story.

I was asked to speak to staff of a large textile processing house in the outskirts of Dhaka in Bangladesh. The topic was Cleaner Production. I was told that the top management and heads of different departments will be attending. I prepared a set of 20 PowerPoint slides with case studies on textile industries who benefited from Cleaner Production. My case studies included stories from Bangladesh.

When I reached the process house, I was taken to a conference room with a projector. There were 20 middle to senior level management people. As I started speaking and put up my first slide, the power went off.

The room became pitch dark. There was no ventilation. A few minutes passed by. I thought the situation wont last long and the back up power will take over.

Unfortunately, there was some major snag. Phone calls happened on the mobile. Windows to the room were opened. The Managing Director (MD) said “Sorry Dr Modak, the power supply will be interrupted for at least 2 hours and we have been advised not to use the backup power for reasons unknown”

We stepped out of the room.

“Dr Modak, would you mind addressing us on the shop floor of the dyeing and printing department? We can put some chairs there. The big advantage is that the audience will also have the shop floor workers and I am sure your message on Cleaner Production will interest them and benefit all of us” The MD said.

I realized that this was rather a tough proposition, but it was made in all earnestness. I was feeling rather “powerless” however and I was not comfortable in the absence of my well-made PowerPoint slides.

But there wasn’t much time to think.

I was taken to the shop floor of the Dyeing and Printing department. There were 20 seniors sitting on the chairs and another 50 workers standing behind. There was a blackboard with few white chalks placed at the Centre.

The MD introduced me to this audience (that I was not prepared to address!) and said “Dr Modak, it will be nice if you delivered your talk in Hindi (preferably in Bollywood Hindi) so that my workers will understand what you will speak”

Wow, I realized that this presentation was going to be even more challenging. I did not know what to say! I wished I was Amitabh Bachhan.

I realized that I had to stay simple and direct – and not use any jargon. But that is easier said than done.

I saw on an industrial balance on the table top with weights stacked next. I walked towards the balance. Everybody was watching.

I asked the name of the worker standing close to the balance in Hindi. He said “I am Mohamed”

I said “Mohamed, do you use this balance to prepare the recipe for every batch on your jet dyeing machines?”

Mohamed nodded

Alright then, I said looking at everybody

“Let us check out how good is this balance”

I asked Mohmed to place a 5 kg weight on the right pan of the balance. I told another worker to put 3 of 1 kg weights and one 2kg weight in the left pan telling all that we should see both the pans in “balance”

Everybody was watching – few curious and few tensed – even the MD

La Ho!. The pans were simply out of balance! This was shocking. The left pan required another half kg weight to strike the balance.

I was half expecting this result

I asked everybody “How many times do you use this balance in the 3 shifts? And each time you use, your recipe is not going to right. What does this mean to the production you do?”

This was like opening the Pandora’s box. Many started speaking.

A supervisor said, “no wonder, we have to re-dye the fabric or sometimes strip or bleach as the depth of shade does not match with the requirements”.

Few workers said that they adjust the pressure and run times of the jet dyeing machines  in many occasions. It’s a bit of trial and error exercise they said.

The procurement head said that he always found the salt consumption on a higher side compared to the calculations based on recipe

I said “sure, all this must be leading to higher costs of dyeing, reducing your productivity as well as profits”

The conversations got even further animated as we started talking about costs, profits and productivity. Everybody “exploded” in Bangla and MD had to butt in and translate for me.

The can of Cleaner Production thus opened. I started with the importance of housekeeping, maintenance and rationalization – walked around the shop floor asking everyone to make suggestions to improve and write them on the blackboard with a white chalk.

We spent a good one hour and generated lots of observations/gaps and action points.

The next thing I did was to translate the benefits in environmental terms like chemicals saved, water consumption reduced, reduced wastewater load, energy recovered etc.

The senior management present on the shop floor added the necessary technical flavor by quoting numbers.

When MD accompanied me to the hotel, he apologized profusely about the inconvenience caused by the sudden power interruption. “But I want to tell you that “all” were happy with your session and understood the concept of Cleaner Production” He said.

I thought I should be the one to thank him as I realized that this extraordinary situation helped me to innovate and build my communication skills – right on the spot.

And the experience was unforgettable


Cover image sourced from https://silverfit.co.za/what-is-balance/


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Oasis Siwa in the Sahara

This post may sound real but it is real only in parts.

I crafted the story based on my encounters in Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam where I had an opportunity to work with some amazing office secretaries.

To tell you this story, I chose Egypt as the setting but some of the incidents come from Indonesia and Vietnam.

Names and characters in the story are masked and any resemblance if at all – is only incidental and not intentional.

Hope you will enjoy the story.  Life can be full of surprises.


I met Dina in Cairo. She was Office Secretary on a project I was working.

Dina was a copt. Copts are the largest Christian community in Egypt.

Dina was middle aged – must be in late thirties. She had a tanned skin and a great dress sense. She spoke good English compared to others. She had a sweet French accent as her mother held from Morocco. Dina was outspoken, bold and a dashing personality.

In her early twenties she fell in love with Captain Hashim of Egypt Air and married him despite opposition from the family.

Capt. Hashim was smart and handsome. As many feared, he turned out to be quite a flirt. Dina caught him red-handed with an air hostess and it raised a sand storm in their lives. Dina abandoned Hashim and left his house. Since then she raised her only daughter Shani on her own. Past ten years have been a tough living for Dina as she hardly made much money.


Dina made my life in Cairo comfortable

She knew the kind of sandwich I liked during lunch. So, she spoke to the Marriot bakery downstairs and made sure that I got my sandwich that had less cheese and more of greens. In those days, I had to get my passport stamped from the local police station on arrival in Maadi. Dina used to get this done with her influence avoiding my visit to the police station. I was always booked at the room facing Nile at the Sofitel at a discounted price. Driver taking me to the airport was given instructions where to stop on the way to pick up the Egyptian bread, Tahina and Humus – something my friends in Mumbai always looked for.


I once asked Dina about her advice on taking a break in Egypt and travel around.

“Well Dr Modak, you may like to see the “usual” places and even take the celebrated Nile Cruise but if I were you then I will go to the Siwa oasis” She said.

The historic town of Siwa stands on an isolated oasis situated in the Western Desert region of Egypt, approximately 550 km west of the capital Cairo, and some 50 km from the border with Libya. Extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, the Siwa oasis is one of the most isolated settlements in the country.

Dina told me that reaching Siwa is a long ten-hour drive, but it is still worth as it presents spiritual tradition of people, amazing land, healing salt lakes and rejuvenating natural springs, set against the centering serenity of the Sahara.

Siwa oasis is one of North Africa‘s best kept secrets.

Have you been there Dina? I asked.

“Not yet Dr Modak. I really want to. One day I will” She sighed. Perhaps her life in the scorching sun was looking for an Oasis like Siwa as a solace.


In one of my travels to Cairo, I was in Abu Dhabi airport on transit. My mobile rang, and it was Dina from Cairo

“Dr Modak, can you please do me a favour” She was breathing heavy.

My daughter Shani is desperate to have new Nokia mobile phone (Gold edition). I knew about Shani (means wonderful woman in Arabic) and how dear she was to Dina.

“I will pay you once you are in Cairo” She said and hung up the phone.

I found the gold edition in the duty free and shopped the mobile phone for Shani.

When I reached Sofitel, Dina was waiting for me in the lobby.

I handed over the box containing the Nokia. “Thank you so much Dr Modak, tomorrow is Shani’s birthday and I want to give her a real surprise” She was very emotional. She hugged me.

When I met Dina next day morning I found her a bit tensed.  She asked me to come out to the elevator lobby. She told me that she is short of money– but will settle somehow before I leave for Mumbai. She was very apologetic.

I said no worries as I was to spend 2 weeks in Egypt for my project.

In the next week, I was sitting in the office of my Project manager Tim. We used to sit late sometimes and go together for a glass of wine in the Sofitel or for some Thai food nearby. As we got out of the office, Tim said “Prasad, something strange has happened. Dina told me that 1000 Egyptian pounds got missing from her drawer today. The drawer was locked but she had inadvertently left the keys on the table top. She had drawn the cash for settling some sundry expenses.

This theft probably happened when she came to my office for a dictation. I really don’t know how to handle this situation.  I have asked Dina not to draw large cash anymore and keep the cash box from now on in my office drawer. This is the first time a theft of this sort has happened in our office.

I could see that Tim was really upset.

Dina was crying. She took leave for two days to get over. She even offered to pay Tim as she said she was responsible. We never found the thief. Dina paid me for the mobile on my last day to return.


On one of the Fridays, Dorothy, my Australian colleague, invited me to her apartment in Zamalek. The apartment had a balcony that faced river Nile. “I am calling Dina too” she said “She can be a good company”. I couldn’t disagree.

Dina came to the apartment with a crate of beer and sheekh touk (chicken tikka). We drank the beer sitting in the balcony and played some cool music. All of us were pretty “high” and Dina was certainly sozzled and started speaking out her mind. She vented out her anger on Hashim (her ex-husband), his betrayal and the broken marriage. She spoke about how different he was when they first met at a coffee shop at Cairo international airport.

“I will never see or speak to this scoundrel” she almost screamed.

“Time to go home Dina” Dorothy said realizing her anguish with rising intake of alcohol.

I offered help Dina reach her down in the basement where she had parked her car.

“Oh, I don’t need anybody – I am just alright” Dina was loud this time when she said this and walked out of the apartment to the elevator.

In the next 10 minutes, we heard a big thud in the basement. Dina had rammed her the car on the wall as the car was parked on the reverse gear. I had to call Shani to come and fetch her. “Oh Mumma, not again!” Shani said. Then she turned to me “Do you know when Mumma drinks she misses Dad and goes just crazy”


In one of my last missions to Cairo, I developed stiffness in my lower Jaw. First, I thought it had something to do with a tooth infection but when I approached the doctor, he suspected a potential cardiac issue and recommended that I return to Mumbai earlier.

Dina checked for the flights and found that the flights were absolutely full.

I told her not to bother and that I will take the flight I had a confirmed reservation.

But Dina refused

“Dr Modak, I don’t want you to take any risk, you must return soonest possible” She was very firm

“I will manage somehow – leave to me” she said in her characteristic confidence.

I don’t know what magic she did or the influence she used, but she secured me a seat to Mumbai the very next day. She picked me from Sofitel and drove to the airport. She insisted that she must come as her presence was needed at the check-in counter.

We reached Cairo International airport. At the check-in, I saw a tall handsome Egyptian and his uniform carried a batch that said Captain Hashim

Dina spoke in Arabic. It was a very brief conversation, but I could sense that Dina was asking a favor.

I got a seat

I thanked Captain Hashim profusely for his help. While praising Dina, I said “She is truly a treasure that one should never lose”

Captain Hashim smiled – was he repenting? – I thought

Dina walked with me to the immigration gate. She hugged me to say good bye. “Take good care Dr Modak” She said.

Capt. Hashim stayed at the check in counter as if waiting for Dina to return. I noticed a coffee shop few meters away.

I wonder what will happen now as I leave – I said to myself.


In next few months, Dina lost her job as the project got closed. I didn’t receive any emails from her thereafter.

But just after Christmas, last year, I received a new year card from Cairo.

It was a family photo from Siwa oasis. In the photo I saw Capt. Hashim standing with his arms around Dina with Shani was standing next to them with a lovely smile

It was so nice to see the reunion at the Siwa Oasis.

And I was happy that I was a part.


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