In my earlier article for ISIAA I had written that being at ISI was like living in a monastery. After five years in a monastery you kind of get disconnected with the world outside; it’s a bit like coming out of jail.
I was happy to be out of jail but didn’t know where to go. Look for a job, or sign up as a research scholar? Neither was easy. There were no HR head hunters waiting outside the ISI gate those days, and I simply didn’t have the courage to ask my senior ISI professors to give me reco letters that could take me to some US university.
So I dithered awhile in no man’s land. I had done my M.Stat. SQC project near Mumbai and the owner of that factory offered me a job. A ‘four figure’ salary too of Rs 1100! I was tempted, but my father stepped in. “If you don’t get your doctorate now, you’ll never get it”, he told me. So why was a doctorate important? The best answer I had was that it would please my father. And that I reckoned was a pretty good reason.
So back I came to ISI as a ‘Research Trainee’. I tried ISI Delhi, but just didn’t like it there. Therefore it was back to ISI Calcutta and the wonderful company of Rajeeva Karandikar and Anirban DasGupta, who by now were seriously into martingales and Bayesian inference, and all those delightful B.Stat. kids. I too was reading up stuff about flows in networks but could never really get over that ‘is-this-really-for-me’ feeling.
The one smart thing I did was to sign up for a spoken French course at Alliance Française on Park Street. I loved those excursions in a crowded L9 bus and the joy of being the best student in class. ISI had dented my confidence, and slanted my handwriting steeply to the left. It was therefore reassuring to note that there was still a world somewhere where I could excel.
By 1980 some doors were opening up. In May that year I received an interview call for a higher studies scholarship in France. I almost couldn’t make it to the interview because the letter was sent to Calcutta and I was briefly in Hyderabad. Thankfully Rajeeva Karandikar in Calcutta moved with alacrity and booked a ‘trunk call’ to alert me. The interview was a cake-walk because I could speak some French and had eventually found the courage to request the eminent French mathematician Claude Berge to send me an invitation letter.
Paris was great fun and I spent three of my most enjoyable years there. Everything (except some exams) seemed rather simple. I was like a dry sponge soaking up French life and culture. I did the Metro, I tried to read Le Monde, I eagerly awaited the arrival of the new Beaujolais wine, I followed the Giscard-Mitterrand presidential debates on TV, I saw every film of a Satyajit Ray retrospective, almost shook hands with the great tall man himself, and chatted knowledgeably with French film buffs in diverse cafes about the Bengali way of life. I was being an <antel> and absolutely loving it.
I also sent off an article about the Ray film festival to a new English paper that had just appeared in Calcutta: The Telegraph. Apparently a lot of people read and liked the article and the Editor wrote me a letter asking if I would agree to be the Paris correspondent of the paper. I was completely and utterly delighted by the offer and rushed to the post office to send my acceptance. Sadly another professional journalist based in Paris pulled a few strings and got the offer transferred to him. It was a rude jolt and, I believe, a big career opportunity lost.
My one sorrow in Paris was that I couldn’t get to read English papers. The newsstand price was prohibitive, and the only library where I could read papers was 30 Metro-minutes away. That’s why it took me a whole day to realize that India had won the 1983 World Cup! I promptly invited my dozen hostel mates to a sparkling wine party (couldn’t afford champagne) and we drank merrily with no one else understanding even how to spell cricket, let alone play it.
My research was going somewhere, but not towards any worthwhile somewhere. This didn’t bother me too much. I would also be required to write and defend my thesis in French. This didn’t bother me either: I always knew my French was better than my math. My eventual thesis defense was a walk in the park. “Your ideas are good, your presentation was very good”, the Chairman of the Jury told me. I admit he got that right.
After doctorate what? Applying for post-docs in the US was an option, but, by now, I knew that I could not be a researcher in math of any real mettle. I didn’t like the idea of being a second rate academic all my life. And letters from my parents indicated that they would like me to come back home.
So I returned with a doctoral thesis dedicated to my father, and a proud ‘Dr’ prefixed to my name. Today I don’t care for the honorific, but it was useful to get me a good job and good promotions in India. A ‘foreign’ doctorate still meant something in the early 1980s!
I joined the National Aeronautical Laboratory (NAL) in Bangalore without a clue how a plane flies (in fact I was scared of flying, and always woke up with dreams of dying in an air crash). NAL too had no clue what to do with me … but we still forged a fruitful 22-year partnership. I redesigned myself as a ‘generalist’ instead of a ‘specialist’; I looked for ‘wide’ problems, instead of the ‘deep’ problems so venerated at ISI. Today I can truthfully claim that I set up the entire digital information environment at NAL.
NAL gave me respect, freedom and affection … a very reasonable barter for my more modest income. In return I gave NAL passion, loyalty and information processes. I also wrote, what would today be called, the ‘NAL blog’ for over 15 years without ever missing a deadline. Newspapers nonchalantly lifted content from these blogs without a word of acknowledgement. We didn’t mind … but today I have a tingling regret that I could’ve become one of India’s better science writers if I had read the writing on the wall earlier.
By the mid-1990s I found myself another passion: teaching. I taught all the easy stuff like probability, statistics, software engineering etc. for many years and developed a very considerable following. Even today so many young students smile at me and ask: “Don’t you remember you taught me, sir?” I blink sheepishly and then grin stupidly. I must be getting old.
Cricket continued to be my enduring passion: I saw every test match at Bangalore: I saw Hadlee get his 374th wicket in 1988 and might even have seen Sunil Gavaskar’s epic last test innings of 96 in 1987. But my daughter picked that very week to be born! I also started writing a lot about cricket on the web, chiefly on rediff.com, but always chose to write about cricket analytics without ever waxing ecstatically about spin and other turns … which I let my more illustrious brother do. My 1999 introduction on the Duckworth-Lewis method continues to be my most cited cricket article on the web.
Hindi cinema and music is the other passion. All the memorable, or unfortunate, events in my life can be bookmarked on the ‘this-was-the-year-Anand-was-released’ or ‘this-was-when-Gavaskar-hit-his-tenth-century’ calendar. You could say it has been a pretty ordinary life, but then I never wanted my sigma to stray too far hither or thither. I have a secret desire to write a novel of wild passion and desire, but I know that I am too inhibited to do that; the best I could probably do is to collaborate to write a book on principled entrepreneurship.
I’m now 56 and have a reasonably good idea how the rest of my life is going to play out. I don’t expect to do anything spectacular, and certainly don’t crave for more fame or money. But I have this fierce desire to give, to bring more joy in people’s lives, to be that crucial catalyst that could change someone’s life. Sometimes even such thoughts seem pompous, but they are in fact sincere and earnest. I’m beginning to realize that the only good thing one can do in life is to try to be good.