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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Meeting with Ranjan Kumar

Today is Holi, the festival of colors. Frankly, not my favorite festival even in best of the times. Not that I lock myself up inside my home. But today I will avoid Holi. You see, I have to meet Ranjan Kumar in the evening. He is coming from New Jersey, in the direct non-stop flight of Air India to Mumbai.

Ranjan has been a friend ever since I joined IIT Kanpur as a young under-graduate student over three decades ago. He was in the same batch, and in the same hostel. We became excellent friends, and we decided to live in the same wing from 2nd year onwards. He was a good Phatta cricketer, an asset to our wing, but more importantly, he was the conscience keeper of the wing. If you were ever in doubt whether something is right or wrong, he was the man to approach. His enthusiasm was infectious. One fine day, he just decided that it was a good idea to go to Lucknow on our rickety bicycles, and off we went. You couldn't question Ranjan, you still can't. He has always been different from the others. Engineering for him meant building things, and he loved Mechanical Engineering, since it gave him freedom to spend hours in the Workshop. Of course, later, he will switch to building software, but he never forgot his first love. We used to spend hours chatting about problems in the world, ranging from who should America vote for in its presidential elections, to how we could use science and technology to solve the real problems of the disadvantaged sections of our society. If one wanted to showcase a patriot, it would be Ranjan Kumar. If one wanted to meet an idealist, it would be Ranjan Kumar.

We have kept touch all along. His joining IIT Madras for an MTech, and then joining Citicorp Overseas Software Ltd. I recall the day I reached London airport around 1990 without a visa, and somehow managed to get a 24-hour visa at the airport. His mission was to get me to experience the best of England in 24 hours, starting from the Greenwich village to London, the Westminster, the Buckingham Palace, the London Bridge, Madam Tussauds museum, a walk along the Thames, a small pizza at the Pizza Hut for 10 pounds, to a pub in the evening where he asked me to taste a coconut drink (since I couldn't take the alcohol), and the bull session through the few remaining hours of the night, before sending me off to Heathrow in the early morning. He was the perfect host. Of course, the discussions had to be about the society, and how all of us - the privileged few to receive an IIT education - must do something that will uplift the life of the under-privileged. He hadn't changed a bit.

Soon most batchmates settled down, got busy in their careers, got married, and all that. All that happened to Ranjan too, but there was no change in that idealism. I recall his wedding in Patna, where for some reason I could not spend as much time with him in the day as he had wanted to. He was keen to know how I was doing at IIT Kanpur as a faculty, and how could my position at IITK could be leveraged to do something in the education space for the masses. So after all the ceremonies were over, he and Sayali, his newly wedded wife, came to my hotel room, and he wanted to spend the next few hours chatting till I leave back for Kanpur. I knew the topics. I was sure he would have a lot of new ideas, he is always full of ideas, and very practical ones at that. But I insisted that they leave my room. They left, of course, but not before informing me that it was important to discuss those ideas at the earliest, and hence their honeymoon location would be the IIT Kanpur Visitors Hostel. Sayali knew him well, and supported him, and they came to IIT Kanpur after a couple of days of ceremonies and festivities in his home town of Gaya.

Our next interaction was in Japan. He was working in Tokyo when me and Rashmi (my wife) decided to have a tour of Asia in three weeks. The maximum number of days were to be in Japan. He made all the arrangements, which train we will go by to which city, when, which hotel we will stay in, what local bus we will take, which places we will visit. He gave us a paper with standard English phrases and their Japanese equivalent, just in case. His attention to details has always been impeccable. Shinkansen took us to Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and so on. Tokyo was seen with Ranjan around. Again, a perfect host. And again, a lot of discussions on what we should do.

He soon moved to Pune, and we met a bit more frequently, about once a year. He became passionate about improving technical, skills based education in India. He had found his calling. He became a member of the Pan-IIT group called, "IITians for ITIs."

Our batch is special and is different. We celebrated our Silver Jubilee twice - silver jubilee of joining IITK and Silver jubilee of graduating from IITK. And he came both times, with his usual enthusiasm. He would make sure that our batch reunions are not just about having fun and nostalgia. They must include serious discussions of what we as a batch can give back. He is the prime mover behind the batch agreeing to support the setting up of the tinkering lab in IIT Kanpur. His passion for engineering and building things would never die or even fade.

Where did my thoughts wander. I am getting ready for my meeting. It is actually a mini get-together of the batch. Many of us would be meeting him at the airport. He does not know about it. It is going to be a surprise for him. Today, we will take our revenge. We will be speaking continuously, and not let him speak a word. In all the batch get togethers, he has been setting the agenda, he has been leading us, forcing us to think, forcing us to get out of our comfort zone. But today, we don't want to think.

Ranjan is used to travel between New Jersey and Mumbai, must have done this scores of time. But this journey will be a different experience for him. He would not be sitting in the passenger cabin. He would not be telling his co-passengers how they can change India. He would be sleeping throughout this journey in a casket, which will be placed in the cargo area of the plane.

Yes, my dearest friend is no more. This act of God proves that God too is not perfect. What is the justification for taking away a person who is only helping others, who is an ideal rarity in this Kalyug. Can we try God in a court of law. Can He defend himself.

All that remains is a body, which too will be consigned to flames soon. But, no, he leaves behind tonnes of memories. Memories are no substitute for the real action. The only hope is that he will upgrade God's communication system soon, and one day, I will receive a skype call from up there. He also leaves behind a lot of his writings, some of which are available at his blog. Such beautiful writings. I am sure can remain a source of inspiration for long.

When I think about him, a face which is always smiling comes in the front. I can almost hear him crack a joke, a subtle one, he had that gift of language whereby he could turn a difficult situation into a lighter environment, makes everyone feel part of what was being done.

The family is shattered. But then these are the times when they come closer, to give each other strength to withstand this unbearable loss, to wipe the tears of each other.

But who will wipe my tears.

Note: If you knew Ranjan Kumar and would like to say something, please don't write that here. His family has set up a page in his memory. Please visit this page and write your thoughts and memories there so that they reach the family.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing, Dheeraj.
I still can't believe he is gone.
RIP Ranjan. You were one of a kind.