But I have that privilege, because he has been a dear friend for over 40 years.
Bimal was a year behind me when he entered Indian Statistical Institute (ISI), Calcutta, in 1974, to do the B.Stat. (Hons.) course. While I often struggled with the tough course, for Bimal it was a walk in the park. It was hardly a surprise when he raced to the top in his class.
What was more surprising was the way Bimal walked across Calcutta’s Barrackpore Trunk (BT) Road. He would just wave his arm and expect the truck and taxi drivers to stop to let him cross. We often told him that Calcutta wasn’t his tiny gaon in Bengal with small or no roads — and that he couldn’t be a gaon wala on Calcutta’s big road.
We were soon to discover new facets of this gaon wala‘s personality. For example, Bimal was an outstanding football player. A series of intelligent and deft dribbles … and then the pass to the striker with infinite precision, leading, almost inevitably, to a goal! Why don’t you try to score the goal yourself, we often asked him. He’d reply that ‘making’ the goal was much more satisfying than ‘scoring’ it.
We then found out that Bimal used to give tuitions in maths and physics to high school students. When we asked why, he’d reply that he needed that extra money for his family, but, more than that, he loved teaching.
Another Bimal skill was when he volunteered to be the hostel mess manager quite frequently. This was a thankless task, but he accepted it quite cheerfully. His reason was again interesting and intriguing: “I see this as a good optimization problem – how to give the best food at the least cost – and it is also because I enjoy choosing and buying fish, and, being mess manager, I can buy so much more fish!”
The four B.Stat. years passed by very quickly, and, when it was time to pick the Master’s specialization, Bimal surprised everyone by choosing ‘Applied Statistics and Data Analysis’ – instead of the more highbrow ‘Advanced Probability and Mathematical Statistics’ that offered a Ph.D. berth in a top US university with almost 100% probability.
Like most ISI toppers – and also because there were no easy jobs for data scientists those days – Bimal eventually found himself as a research scholar at the famed Department of Combinatorics and Optimization in the University of Waterloo, Canada. A Ph.D. in double quick time followed … and was hardly a surprise given his immense ability and talent.
But what was a real surprise was that, unlike most ISI toppers, Bimal promptly returned to India after obtaining his doctorate and teaching for a couple of years in the State University of New York. In the early 1980s it was extremely rare for someone to give up the opportunity, and the money, offered by the US to return to an uncertain, and surely more turbulent, future in India. “India is my country, I want to live my life here”, Bimal replied while responding to the general bewilderment.
As a faculty member, and soon a full professor, in ISI’s Computer Science and Applied Statistics Units, Bimal quickly rose in the ranks. His teams did some wonderful and exciting work – measuring fraud in nationalized banks, providing the most accurate estimates of the number of tigers in the Sunderbans, analysing the distribution of soiled currency notes, or undertaking studies on garbage and waste disposal – but this wasn’t the sort of work that was personally most rewarding, or led to papers in the most reputed international scientific journals. Bimal’s well-wishers warned him that this would jeopardize his future ‘growth’ prospects – that meant more lucrative foreign jaunts, the many accompanying prizes and medals, and later the much coveted fellowships of national and international science academies – but Bimal said that he didn’t really care. He said he’d rather be a different kind of professor …
To Bimal, a professor was someone who mentored and created outstanding teams of young researchers around him, the professor who would favour practical problems of national concern … rather than stroll off for another exotic excursion into some Banach Space. But while Bimal was sure how he wanted to do things, he was still trying to figure out what he wanted to do.
The answer would be cryptology – the mathematics of encryption and network security that neatly married computer science and probability. Why cryptanalysis? Partly because it aligned best with Bimal’s top skills, but even more so because it seemed to be a critical national imperative especially as India grappled with terrorism and the aftermath of Kargil.
While Bimal and his teams provided answers and solutions to some vitally important defence and security questions – we won’t talk of all that here, but it would be fair and honest to say that Indian defence establishments rate him very highly – what is worthy of even greater applause is that Bimal created a strong and vibrant Indian team in cryptanalysis, which is essential because no country ever shares the secret of its secrets.
In particular, Bimal launched Indocrypt, the international conference on cryptology held every year in India since 2000, which has given a massive boost to the crypto movement in India. Indocrypt is extremely well-attended; some years ago Adi Shamir, the ‘S’ in the renowned RSA algorithm, attended Indocrypt. “How did you manage to rope in Shamir”, I asked Bimal. “Oh, I just sent him an email; I knew he wouldn’t refuse our invitation” – to me this casual reply reflects the respect that Bimal commands in the international community, and especially in France.
And, through all this, Bimal continued his intense and affectionate association with all his students at ISI. He taught dozens of courses in statistics and computer science exposing his wards to a plethora of ideas and insight, insisting on teaching every semester even after his administrative responsibilities grew exponentially. I was once visiting him at his ISI apartment, and there was a loud knock on the door after midnight. I was alarmed, but Bimal remained unperturbed: “Must be some student with some practical or research problem bothering him. My doors are always open to students!”
It turned out that this student was just back in the hostel from his village, and he had brought a bag of his favourite teacher’s favourite mangoes. It isn’t just Bimal’s love for mangoes that makes him an aam aadmi (and I’m not talking of political parties). I recall an occasion some years ago when we had to take an auto-rickshaw to reach ISI from B T Road’s Dunlop Bridge because it had started raining. Only one auto was available and there were many of us … so Bimal promptly sat next to the auto driver after asking him to shift a little more to the right. And he was those days ISI’s Dean of Studies and a front-runner for the Director’s position!
I also recall another occasion when Bimal showed up at Indian Institute of Science during an Indocrypt conference. He was busy, smiling and joking with the international delegates … but, when he saw me, he grew a little serious. “Dada, I have a problem and want your help”, he told me. “Sure”, I said, “how can I help you?”. That’s when he pointed downwards to a gaping hole exposing his toes after the seams in his right shoe had given way. I offered to buy him a new pair if he told me his size. “No, I don’t want a new shoe, I just want you to find a good cobbler for me!”
Shortly before he became the Dean of Studies, Bimal was felled by a lethal attack of cerebral dengue. As the platelet count dropped alarmingly, he was a mere 10,000 platelets away from certain death. All of us feared the worst and there was a desperate need for blood donors. But amidst that encircling gloom we saw a dazzling heart-warming display of love and affection – 40 ISI students had formed a long queue insisting that they should be the first to donate blood to their “Bimal da”!
Given his standing, and his popularity, it was inevitable that Bimal would one day become ISI Director. Bimal assumed charge as ISI Director on August 1, 2010, I made an exclusive trip to Kolkata to be present for the occasion. I thought it would be an intense and solemn occasion involving oaths and vows; instead it proved to be a happy meeting around a round table with many cups of black tea.
Bimal’s first thoughts were to empower ISI students and researchers; “We are an institution of national importance and we must create the best capability for our country”, he told me. His next thought was to get better networked. “ISI cannot remain in isolation. We must expand to other regions, get better connected with industry, and reach out to the rest of India and the world”, he added.
As Director, Bimal was incredibly busy, and our meetings were brief and hurried. But it was apparent to me that Bimal was forging a very different leadership model: ISI had to create great knowledge, but it was even more important for this knowledge to create an impact.
We watched our old mate with glowing pride. While Bimal was winning friends worldwide, he was obviously losing some friends too – that’s what happens to every leader, but what really matters more is that the leader should be capable, charismatic and compassionate.
Bimal has always been all that … although his actions ‘outside the box’ do occasionally raise eyebrows. If a student is ill or dying, he’ll do everything within the ambit of the rules to help or save his life. If the research scholar has a paper accepted in a conference abroad for some good work, Bimal will do what it takes to provide him travel funds for that international exposure. If the ISI guest house – being usually the first point of contact for a visitor – needs a ramp up, Bimal will spend big if needed. However the same Bimal rarely, if ever, flew by business or executive class even though he enjoyed that privilege by holding a position equivalent to a Secretary in the Government.
The only relaxing moments for Bimal were on a weekend evening when he accompanied his wife for a play or a movie … and of course while watching a football match, especially if his favourite Mohun Bagan team was playing. He faced a dharam sankat a few years ago when the rival East Bengal club also offered him a club membership. Bimal gracefully accepted the membership although his son was livid.
It was football that took Bimal to the Salt Lake Stadium a couple of years when Lionel Messi made an appearance in Kolkata. But, even before the first half ended, there was a medical emergency when his ISI colleague who had accompanied him suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. With Messi around, all telephone lines were jammed for security reasons and there was no way to call for help. Together with another spectactor, Bimal personally lifted his colleague out of the stadium and deposited him in a police jeep. When the policeman wasn’t sure if he could leave, Bimal sat next to him and sternly told him to rush to the hospital. Perhaps a rule was broken that day, but a life was saved.
That’s the Bimal I have always known. I was therefore aghast, appalled and flabbergasted when it was reported in the media that the government had issued a notification pointing to the existence of “a number of general and specific matters of financial and administrative irregularities which show the direct and supervisory responsibilities for acts of omission and commission on the part of Bimal Roy”. The notification adds: “There is justified and reasonable apprehension that Bimal Roy may indulge in propagation of indiscipline and mischief, including acts of administrative and financial impropriety …”.
Now wait a minute! Which Bimal Roy are we talking about? This isn’t the Bimal that I or the 2000 others who petitioned in Bimal’s favour on change.org seem to know. This can’t be the same Bimal who was earlier this year conferred the Padma Shri for his many stellar contributions to the nation. Something’s terribly wrong somewhere; this is a travesty of truth, fair play and justice! Bimal Roy’s personal integrity is complete and unimpeachable. And it is ludicrous to the extreme to imagine that Bimal would do something improper in his last 50 days, when he had 1500 full days as Director before that to rake in the moolah if he ever wanted.
We must stop this! We can’t let the evil taxi or truck driver on B T Road trample our still innocent gaon wala who has spent his whole life working for his country and his people. Please let us not run a good man down.