Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Portrait of my CT

My grandpa’s younger brother did not have any grandchildren of his own.  While in her late 20s, his daughter – his only child - had made the decision to stay unmarried.  She chose to lead a life that was completely dedicated to social activism and writing.  Conversations about her marriage were minimal.  After a while, they ceased to exist.  As far as typical father-daughter interactions in middle class India were concerned, this was as far from the norm as Chennai (my hometown, in India) is from Chicago.  After all, this is the land of arranged marriages.  But CT never cared much about societal norms.  CT – that was short for Chinna Thatha which, in my native language, refers to a grandfather’s younger brother.  CT is the kind of nickname that a kid will coin right before filing for creative bankruptcy.  I was that kid.  But somehow, miraculously, he found it cute and so, the name stuck. 

CT was a short man.  In small part due to genetics and in no small part due to his lovely wife’s delectable cooking, he was a tad overweight.  A lightly starched cotton shirt and a neatly ironed dhoti (a traditional Indian garment) comprised his preferred attire.  He applied coconut oil to bring some discipline to the thick shocks of hair that he was blessed with.  His ranch house in Chennai was built in the 1960s.  I especially loved the pillars near the threshold.  It was not an ostentatious home and was beautiful precisely for that reason.  The warmth and glow of the home came not just from the large open windows.  There was an inexplicable coziness in the off-white, worn-out sofa.  CT and his home were not dissimilar to one another.  Both derived their richness from their simplicity.  Both gave you the feeling that you were a welcome addition to their existence just by virtue of being in their vicinity.  Both belonged to an earlier era, yet had aged gracefully, exuding a sense of stability and unfussy perfection. 

CT was 44 years older than me.  It is a fact – not an opinion, mind you – that I was his favorite among the kids in our extended family!  Cricket - the sport, not the insect – was the durable glue that cemented our bond.  Both of us loved the game.  He got me to be not only passionate about the sport but also think about it deeply.  He would occasionally give me some nuggets of wisdom around leadership and teamwork based on his vast knowledge of the game.  But since I adored the sport and its players, it never came across as didactic.  Plus he was a fabulous raconteur, telling stories with the right mix of facts and spice.  One of his favorite stories was that of an Indian cricket team captain who refused to kowtow to the authorities and fought for his team over the miniscule salaries that were paid to the players.  The captain paid the price for his recalcitrance and lost his place in the team while the other players got a discernible hike in pay.  CT would say that the panjandrums who felt victorious destroying the captain’s career had actually lost a bigger battle.  It was years later that I could understand why this story resonated with him.  CT had quit his fledgling career as a lawyer because he could not stand the corruption and dishonesty that ran rampant in his practice.  He decided that the fight was not worth it because the system would not accommodate the values that he stood for.  He later had a fulfilling career as a marketer for an alloy manufacturer. 

Acceptance.  As I think of the one word that I would associate most with CT, it is ‘acceptance’ that scrolls across my mind in font size 72, especially as it relates to his attitude towards his daughter.  His unshakable belief was that freedom was not something that he had to give my Aunt.  Rather, within the bounds of conscientiousness, he believed that she owned her freedom of thought, choice and expression and he saw it as his duty to not impinge on that.  My Aunt’s choices, be it the decision to stay single, have communist leanings or espouse atheism were all unconventional for the mores of the society around her.  But CT respected every one of her choices wholeheartedly.  He was a deeply pious Brahmin (a subsect of Hindus) but he proudly announced to me one day that my Aunt’s latest book was her best work yet.  The book’s title – Towards a Non-Brahmin Millennium.  This, coming from a person that spent 45 minutes every morning in his prayer room, was remarkable.  The acceptance of the space that he believed was his daughter’s stemmed from a quiet assurance about his own space.  That, I believe, was empowerment of a special kind.  If I grow up to be half as thoughtful a parent to my son, then I am sure that CT will be happy with my parenting abilities. 

On Saturday, January 22, 2005, he stepped out of his house and suddenly collapsed, never to get up.  He had had a fatal cardiac arrest.  He was 67.  Just about the only comforting thought that I have about CT’s rather sudden death is the fact that he did not undergo any suffering.  It was an abrupt end to a meaningful chapter in my life.  But as we all know, the themes of a book often get established in important chapters.

Continue to rest in peace, CT.  Just know that I miss you.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Yes, I have regrets

I make very good chai tea latte, I am told.  But I have not made a single cup of tea for my grandpa.  He used to relish his evening cup of tea, as he confabulated with his childhood friend.  He passed away rather suddenly in an auto accident in 1994 - he was 61, I was 13.  Had I made tea for him, he would have enjoyed the taste, aroma and the gesture in equal measure. 

When I was a high school student in India, my Aunt was going through a personal crisis.  The details are not important.  Sure, the rest of the family rallied around her.  But I reckon she would have appreciated a little more empathy from me.  I was young.  I was brash.  These are not excuses for insensitivity.  It is how I was back then.  My Aunt passed away last October at the age of 49.  Did she know that I was sorry for my callousness as a teenager?

I did not get that yellow graduation cord in 2002.  At Carnegie Mellon University, students who graduate with honors are presented with a yellow cord around their neck at the time of getting their certificate.  When I did my Masters, our Grade Point Average (GPA) had to be at or above 3.75 out of 4.  In my last semester, I had done well enough to recover from a slump.  My GPA ended up being 3.71.  Or so I thought.  One of my professors sent out an e-mail stating that there was an error in the grading of the final exam.  Recalculations were done.  And my grade for that course changed from a B+ to an A-.  My revised GPA was three point seven four.  Why could I not be left with a 3.71?  Why did I have to miss out on that yellow cord by 0.01, the minimum possible difference?  Of course, I could have worked even harder to not let this near miss happen in the first place.  In the final analysis, I had done well but graduated without honors.  Without that yellow cord, I might add.

I got a very polite letter from the Fuqua School of Business in 2007.  When I was applying to business schools, the one school that I fell in love with at first sight was Fuqua at Duke University.  The curriculum seemed fantastic and the vibes that I experienced when I visited the school were magical.  As I walked out of the interview, I said to myself, “I belong here.”  But after enduring an excruciating period of being on the wait list, I was informed that I had been not admitted.  

Regrets about loved ones, regrets about close misses, regrets about not getting something I desired – yes, I have had regrets.  But there are a few reasons why those thoughts don’t pervade too many recesses of my mind.

Last December, I had gone to Atlanta to meet with some of my friends.  These are friends that I have known since high school.  I was meeting with them after three years.  Before the trip, I felt this inexplicable but strong urge to make tea for them.  So, after getting permission from the friend who hosted us, I took my loose tea, tea press, kettle and milk frother all to Atlanta!  And I made tea for them twice a day for the duration of my trip.  Especially memorable was a moment during a late night session of board games when one of my buddies asked if I could make tea.  It felt nice.  As the tea was brewing, one of my regrets was being vaporized. 

After completing my high school, I had moved to the US in 1998.  My Aunt continued to live in India.  In my early years in the US, along with homesickness came a pang of guilt.  And for the rest of her life, I was a much nicer nephew to my Aunt.  To her, true munificence stemmed out of thoughtfulness of gesture rather than any expensive gifts.  I understood this and spent quality time with her.  I just wish I had more time with her.  One of the things that she wished for was that I be a good husband to my wife.  Ever since she passed away, I have made sincere attempts to go the extra mile to make my wife feel special, cared for and loved in a purer, unconditional manner.  I have a feeling that my Aunt will be smiling from up above.  That beatific smile of hers that I cannot see in person anymore obscures a regret that I do not feel anymore. 

I did not do my MBA at Fuqua.  Instead, I went back to Carnegie Mellon, to their Tepper School of Business.  When I graduated in 2009, I had finished with a GPA that ensured that something could go around my neck when I received my diploma - a luminous yellow cord. 

Some stories have a neat little ending.  Others do not.  But we can, along with destiny, co-author a sequel that completes the story in an unexpectedly fulfulling manner.