The Indistructibles

When I bought the Palm Pilot 5000, I could legitimately call myself one of the “early adopters”. I still remember the excitement with which I drove to the Circuit City (somewhere near Park Ridge, Illinois). And I couldn’t wait to return to the office and lay my hands on the beauty.

Some years later, I was buying a new device every year. And I was probably in the bottom half of the Silicon Valley early adopters.

But that was a long time ago.

I resisted the wiles of a slew of sexy iPhone models.

My first Android phone (Samsung Galaxy S2) was bought in late 2012. And I only upgraded to my second Android (OnePlusX) 3.5 years later.

But this post wasn’t meant to be about devices 🙂

Some of my accouterments have approached (or approaching) end-of-life and I wanted to grant them emeritus status with fond memories on my blog. I present to you six exhibits, in reverse chronological order.

indis_nike_shorts_2002_IMG_20160828_121329#1 Nike running shorts (two pairs): Acquired within a week of each other in 2002 (most likely in May) after a decision to train for my first ever marathon in Oct 2002. The shorts saw four months of intense use over all manners of tempo, interval, treadmill, and long run workouts. They unexpectedly got a six year reprieve – until our move to Bangalore. Where, things really started to happen for me as a runner. After a steadily escalating running volume (circa 2009 to 2011), the shorts conveyed sufficient warnings that they be excused from long run deployments (yeah! those inner elastics do have a finite life) so they eventually became my workhorse shorts for tempo and interval runs. A few years ago, seams started to give way but the neighborhood tailor fixed them alright. I looked at them again recently and realized that it was finally time.

indis_ultimax_socks_2002_IMG_20160828_121212#2 Ultimax running socks (two pairs): Acquired a few weeks after the aforementioned Nike shorts, these were bought from Ryan’s Sports Shop – the same Santa Clara running store where I got my first running shoes (Brooks Adrenaline GTS6). The socks were heavily used for 4 months in 2002. After the six year hiatus, they experienced heavy usage again for 3.5 years in Bangalore.. until I discovered barefoot running. After a four year hiatus, I used them again for an ultra race and, I must admit, they are still good as new.

#3 Rockport shoes: My previous pair of Rockport shoes was a lot more indis_rockport_shoes_2001_IMG_20160901_223610interesting. This one is as boring and vanilla as dress shoes get. I probably bought them in 2001. The insole needed to be replaced a few years ago but at 15+ years, this pair is as close to indistructible as I know. A few days ago, I finally bought my first pair of vegan shoes so the Rockports shall be dispatched to a Goonj location real soon.

indis_gy_tee_jun26_2000_IMG_20160901_224143#4 Company Swag Tee (Jun 26, 2000): Larry Page came to Yahoo to give a tech talk about Google’s fault tolerant infrastructure.. in conjunction with the Google-Yahoo partnership party. The first 200 Yahoos who made it to URLs (name for our cafeteria) got the tee shirt.

#5 Healdsburg Jazz Festival (May 31 – Jun 3, 2000): What anindis_healdsburg_2000_IMG_20160828_122205 incredible lineup of jazz musicians we were SO fortunate to hear over two days – Charles Lloyd, Pharaoh Sanders, Billy Higgins, Von and Chico Freeman. So when I saw this tank top shwag (see right), I grabbed it instantly. My favorite night time wear. At least for a few more years.

indis_bluetee_1993_IMG_20160828_122302#6 Tank top from Mervyns (1993-94): How can I Carbon-14-date this faded blue tank top? Well, watching your home team winning its first NBA Championship sorta etched things in. The seams are giving way in a few places but it (and I) aren’t giving up without a fight.

 

When I met a Mexican Vishy in a Texas Ghost Town

[Editor’s Note: On a musical day that started with Depeche Mode, moved on to Buena Vista Social Club, and continued with Omoro Portuondo and Getz/Gilberto in the evening, it wasn’t a surprise that I remembered this story and a 1993 road trip in West Texas.]

The man grinned widely, offered his hand and introduced himself.

“My name is Pablo. Is this your first visit to Terlingua?”

“Yes.” I said. “We are students at University of Houston. We came to checkout Big Bend National Park.”

He nodded approvingly.

“What did you say your name was?”

“Vishy,” I said.

Pablo’s eyes widened. He jerked back his head in astonishment, nearly knocking off his sombrero.

“No way! My friend’s name is Vishy too!” He pointed to a man across the room.

“You think I’m kidding, right?” I’ll go bring him here.

A minute later I was shaking hands with a short man in a full panoply Mexican attire. Grinning ear to ear, we shook hands and sized each other up. As my two friends and fellow journeymen (Soumya and Naveen) watched on with amusement, we did some polite small talk and eventually bid goodbye. Three Indians, two Mexicans and four first names. What were the odds of that happening in Terlingua, a small West Texas ghost town?

************

Our two years at the University of Houston were a simple blur of action.

  • Slog ass off from Monday to Friday (which usually meant a work day that started late and ended in the wee hours of the morning).
  • Do something different on weekends (don’t recall exactly what — maybe it was catching up on sleep and groceries)
  • Long weekends were special gifts. Gifts that couldn’t and wouldn’t be squandered away by staying within city limits. Simple three step formula: Rent car. Pick destination. Drive.

The destination didn’t matter (sooo.. many awesome destinations). The rental car didn’t matter (all of them easily touched 100 mph).

Pic courtesy wikimedia.org

Pic courtesy wikimedia.org

One such long weekend took us to Big Bend National Park. Here are some other memories from the trip.

  • The drive from Houston to Big Bend was negotiated with exactly one stop (in San Antonio) where we gorged ourselves on some Mexican burritos, tostadas, and chalupas. It was most likely Taco Bell. We were not the discerning gourmands that we claim ourselves to be (now).
  • Last 5-10 miles were rather nervous.. Ten meter visibility means, well, ten meter visibility.
  • Reaching the park welcome center around 2am and falling asleep in the car. Waking up at 6pm with a magnificent mountainous vista greeting us through the car windshield.
  • Dinner one evening at Alice’s Restaurant. It was a vegetarian restaurant! Yes – a vegetarian restaurant in West Texas.
  • Hiking along the banks of the Rio Grande river.. a boatman offering us to row us over to the Mexican side and we actually deliberated for several minutes before better sense prevailed.
  • A deer deciding to cross our path when we were cruising at 70 mph. Only Soumya’s deft reflexes and superb car control ensured that we stopped about two feet short. The deer calmly looked us in the eye (no ‘deer caught in the headlights’ look, no sir) and calmly crossed the highway while the three of us gulped down our hearts.

 

Bengali Mumbaikar takes the long way home

Pic: courtesy ekmarathimanoos.blogspot.com

Soumya Banerjee (my friend from University of Houston days) returned from Boston to India 10 years ago – a period which we can term the “first wave” of reverse brain drain. Very few of my Indian-American friends returned that early so he stands out. It’s thus fitting that he’s the first profile being published in the new R2IProfile category. Here we go with the email interview…

Q: How long & where did you live in US? When did you return to India?
A: 10 years. Lived in Houston (Grad school + 1.5 years) and Boston

Q: Why did you return?
A: The company I worked with (Sapient) was setting up an office in India. Had a casual conversation and took a flight over. Wife (Priti Dhall) stayed back in the US for a year and then she also moved. Meeting in London stops being romantic after a few months.

So clinically speaking it was the job. Also important is the fact that we always thought we would move back some day. (America was never our country)

Q: Which Indian city did you move to and why?
A: Delhi, since 3 of the 4 guys setting up the office were from Delhi 🙂 Moved to Mumbai after 7 years in Delhi.

Q: Apartment, villa or independent home? How did you arrive at this decision? Did you move all/part of your household belongings?
A: Apartment (one floor of a 3 floor house). Only two of us, did not need a HOUSE. Also at that time Gurgaon was not developed and did not have that many apartments. We moved with six suitcases of stuff. Rest we left behind.

Q: How do you rate your return to India on a scale of 1-10? [10=love the place/should have moved earlier, 1=hate it here / plotting my return back to USA)
A: 10

Q: What are the 3 things you absolutely love about India since you returned?
A: In no particular order…

  • Career growth
  • Ability to travel and see the country
  • Family being close by

Q: What are the 3 things you absolutely detest about being in India?
A: In no particular order…

  • Roads in cities
  • Chalta hai attitude
  • Encounters with corruption

Q: What are the 3 things you miss most about America?
A: See below:

  • Food 🙂
  • Silence
  • Not being involved in every family decision/trip

Editor’s Note: Soumya is currently working on an online education startup (Attano) targeting Indian students. If you meet Soumya in person, you’ll find that, far from the brevity of his email responses, he’s a voluble and engaging communicator with an insatiable wanderlust. For evidence of his wanderlust, I present you Exhibit A – Genesis (photo blog of his travels in India). Soumya’s dear wife (Priti) meanwhile is accruing karma points for several generations of Banerjees and Dhalls through her dedicated work on CanKids India (a support group for children with cancer and their families).

When something’s not easy to do, you are doing it wrong

Pic: courtesy Bing Images

It was early days for me at the University of Houston campus in the Fall of 1992. One of my initial starry-eyed memories was that of purchasing my first Coke can from a vending machine on my way back to the Cambridge Oaks apartment. This was my first-ever encounter with a Coke can (for that matter any soft drink can). I examined it as one would a hard-earned trophy. It was chilled to the perfect temperature, the bright red Coke colors and the calligraphic lettering epitomized to me excellence, beauty and perfection — all things I associated with the American Dream that I was here to pursue. And I had just bought it for 60 cents. It was thrilling.

At this point, most normal people would have pushed the tab open and started glugging away. For some odd reason (daftness perhaps?), I decided that one had to twist/rotate the tab (step #1) and then pull the tab (step #2). Not surprisingly, after I had executed step #2, I was left holding a detached tab and a (still unopened) Coke can and feeling rather silly. I hurried my way back back to the apartment with a mixture of how_could_I_be_so_dumb and a steely resolve to make amends. Later in the kitchen, a few deliberate pokes with a screwdriver yielded results and I was soon slaking my Coke thirst. This was incident #1.

Incident #2 involved the American matchbook – which is quite different from its Indian counterpart (which we call “match box” or “matches”). For the benefit of my Indian readers, let me describe the American matchbook – 2 rows of soft matchsticks are fused inside a thin cardboard flap, there’s only striking surface which is on the outer side of the flap. In case you are wondering, I’ve been a smoker for a grand total of 3 1/2 years – the latter 2 years were during my 1992-94 Houston stint. My roommate (another smoker from India) and I used the matchbook like an Indian matchbox – i.e. tear off the soft stick, and strike it against the striking surface. After a few days of low hit-rate match-strikes, we concluded that the Americans didn’t know how to manufacture matchbooks. Along comes Beaumont-Srini (a senior in Business school) who  showed us the correct way of using the American matchbook — twist the flap around to almost touch the striking surface and simply pull out the match between the striking surface and the flap. Voila! (Friction + chemistry = fire).

As I reflected on these 2 incidents, our mutual good friend, philosopher, guide and senior – Soumya (of Soumya.org fame) had this pithy summary about life in America: when something’s  not easy to do, you are doing it wrong. Over the years, this served as a reliable guiding litmus test. When I found myself waiting for hours at the DMV, turns out I could have called a toll free number to book an appointment instead. Years later, when I kept getting placed on hold on that toll free DMV number, turns out I could have booked my appointment (via the web) in less than a minute.

Now let’s look at India. The same pithy litmus test can be applied here – you just have to flip it on its head: when something’s looking very easy, you are probably doing it the wrong way. If you got your driver’s license in a single afternoon, chances are you bribed the RTO officer or utilized the services of a driving school agent. If you bought the latest video game or the newest Bollywood release from a footpath vendor as you were lounging down Indiranagar’s 100-feet road or Koramangala’s 80-feet road, they were definitely pirated (and you knew it!). If it’s taking you fifteen visits to the Corporation office to register your recently purchased property and you still don’t know when it will finally be registered, you (my friend) are doing it the right way!

If you found my description of the American matchbook to be inadequate, here are some visuals via Google Images: click here

Memories of an American Life – First Two Years in Houston

University of Houston – Science & Engineering classroom complex (Pic: courtesy hayneswhaley.com)

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series on my life in America spanning Houston, Chicago and SF Bay Area. Part 1 was Memories of an American Life – 4 years in Chicago. I arrived in Houston, Texas on August 16, 1992 with one friend (my friend & classmate from BIT Ranchi – Namita Raghavan). I left the city in October 1994 (headed to Chicago) with a Masters degree, several dozen good friends, and plenty of good memories. Below are some of my fond recollections:

  • Seeing Namita’s friendly face  at the airport.
  • My first experience of American freeways in Soumya’s tiny 1992 Dodge Colt with cars whizzing by on both sides.
  • Eating my first Pizza Hut pizza at Namita’s Cambridge Oaks apartment the evening I arrived.
  • Experiencing campus life at University of Houston during the first semester.
  • Starting my book collection via Houston Public Library’s annual book sale at the Astrodome. In Shiv’s words that day, I bought books like people buy potatoes.
  • Teaching Fortran Programming to a class of 45+ sophomores. Enuf said – I survived!
  • Interviewing at Compaq for an internship and learning that they had so many employee groups moving offices, they needed to build a system to optimize it.
  • Getting a summer internship at Grumman Technical Services and a brief exposure to a quaint 4GL called Peregrine Systems.
  • Buying my first car – a maroon 1984 manual transmission Volkswagen Jetta.
  • Tequila shots with Naveen, Shiv, Asmi, and a Mexican couple (pursuing Ph.D in Economics). Btw, no self-respecting Mexican does ‘shots’ – they drink their Tequila straight up.
  • Singlehandedly demolishing a large Pizza Hut pizza in under 30 minutes. My witness and co-glutton was my dear friend Naveen who, as I was his witness, also demolished a large pizza.
  • 36-hour Greyhound trip from Houston to Charlottesville, Virginia. Developed a fresh appreciation for vegetarian choices available in large cities (read “Houston”).
  • Exciting day at Astroworld – my first trip to a Six Flags theme park.
  • Continuing Soumya’s fine tradition of driving the 41 mile 610 Interstate loop in the wee hours of the morning as a ‘reward’ for completing assignments.
  • Driving Soumya’s Dodge Colt on 610E in the left lane and discovering that the brakes had stopped working. Thanks to my non-panicky copilot (was it Gorty?), managed to execute a sequence of nervy lane changes which eventually brought us safely to the shoulder.
  • Renting a Toyota Camry and driving nearly continuously (for 36 hours) to Minneapolis. My cousin Swarna (who was doing her MBA at Baylor University, Waco) was the fearless copilot. Getting my first ever speeding ticket at Huntsville (just 60 miles north of Houston) was the rite of passage. And to think that if Soumya hadn’t loaned me a fuzz-buster, I might have been clocked at 100mph!
  • Road trip to Tampa, Florida over a Labor Day Weekend with Soumya. Rental car: Pontiac Grand Prix with a moon-roof and fancy steering controls. We perfected the art of “zero stop” driving.
  • Awesome trip to the Big Bend National Park with Soumya & Naveen. We fell asleep in the car in front of the Visitor Center and woke up to see the majestic mountains up close. We dined in Alice’s Restaurant (a vegetarian restaurant to boot) in Terlingua – aka “Ghost Town”.

Why did the Kurugantis immigrate to America?

Pic: courtesy indianamerica.wordpress.com

Sometime in my 2nd year of engineering at BIT Mesra, I first dreamed of coming to America, getting trained as a computer scientist, doing cutting-edge research and becoming wildly famous – you know, the usual dreams that 2nd year engineering students have. 🙂 With a single-minded focus, I threw myself into the application process for graduate studies – acing the GRE, writing Statement of Purposes, obtaining recommendation letters, etc. Four years later, on Aug 15, 1992, I boarded a Lufthansa flight to Houston to start my MS program at University of Houston. At this point, I was neither thinking of settling down in America nor did I have a definitive plan to return to India – my operating philosophy was simply to wait and see how my career progressed.

Two weeks prior to my arrival in Houston, an intelligent and attractive young woman from Bombay took a different flight to Chicago. She was headed to Loyola University to pursue her Ph.D in neuroscience. Her motivations were far more idealistic, focused and driven. After watching her mother battle Multiple Sclerosis (a disease neither well-understood nor well-researched in India) for years, she vowed to join the thousands of worldwide researchers in the quest for a cure to MS. Unlike my wait and see approach, she resolved to return to India after completing her Ph.D. Our paths crossed in Jun 1996 and inevitably changed both our lives. After a year-long romance (short by American standards, long by Indian standards), we got married.

I’ve thought long and hard about why I dreamed of America in the first place. I’ve come up with two plausible reasons.

  1. Books are where dreams begin. I was a serious bookworm during my school years. It is not an exaggeration to say that I devoured 5-6 books a week (when school was in session). My earliest images of America were of the Wild West which was fueled by a heavy diet of Louis L’Amour, Oliver Strange’s Sudden, and Zane Gray. My reading then moved to adventure, intrigue, and science fiction where I encountered the likes of Alistair MacLean, Clive Cussler, and Isaac Asimov. Somewhere in the zillion mentions and portrayals of America (wild west, MIT, and CalTech), I became fascinated and wanted to see and visit America. By the time I reached college, the resolve became stronger and turned into professional hunger.
  2. By the time I reached BIT Mesra (my undergraduate alma mater), I had heard of many many folks (especially engineering graduates) who had immigrated to America to pursue graduate study. One of my friend’s brothers (who was already a professor at University of Pennsylvania) had won the prestigious Presidential Young Scientist award. All these social proof points added to my determination to pursue the (Indian) American Dream.

16 years later…

Pic: courtesy caminodesantiago.me

16 years? Well – to be more precise 15 years, 9 months & 5 days since I came to America from India. Chasing the American Dream I came.. first to the University of Houston to pursue an MS in Computer Science. Two quick years later, fate played a role in whisking me off to Chicago (& not San Francisco Bay Area). I had resolved to drive to SF Bay Area if I didn’t find a job within 30 days of graduating.

Two companies made offers within the first 2 weeks – Dallas-based American Airlines and a little-known consulting firm (SEI Information Technologies) in Chicago. By all accounts, I should have accepted the former offer – who doesn’t want to fly to a new American city every weekend (especially if you are in your 20’s). What excited me about SEI was the group’s focus on the exciting field of in-car navigation systems (this group eventually merged with the sister company Navigation Technologies). Navigation systems, GPS applications, and A* algorithms were a clear draw. The Chicago vs. Dallas factor clinched the decision for me. What I didn’t realize until 2 years later the real reason why I had moved to Chicago — to meet and marry the woman of my dreams – Poonam.

Poonam graduated from Loyola University with a Ph.D in neuroscience, accepted a post-doc position at Stanford University and we moved to the Bay Area in July 1998. Ten great years later we’re approaching the next inflection point in our lives. We are moving back to India – there, I said it!

Coming up next…

  • Why were the last 16 years so incredibly great? Why did we come to America in the first place?
  • Why are we moving to India? And why now?
  • Whither India? Which city are we moving to?
  • ….
  • So much more….