Thursday, April 23, 2009

Zorba the Geek aka Ravi Saldanha - Part 1

Few kindred souls – my friends have been repeatedly imploring me to resume my blogging . May be that's why I feel the inclination to write now. I wonder how much of the random thoughts/reflections/memories that ripple across my mind are worth converting into blogs and how many of such blogs are worth being called 'blogs', and how many among them really worth reading. But then this thought too could be one such, So I guess you need not take it seriously and get going :-) – that is to read, reflect and respond.

For long I refrained from blogging because I was obsessively concerned about the quality of what I write ( i felt i have to do a good deal of home work on my writing) – it terms of cadence, style and literary merit and I am sure that in that self imposed exile I have missed out sharing a lot of what nourished, enriched and sustained me. So from now onwards I will just go on recording my impressions – memories , dreams and reflections on this blog page – yet another billboard of a soul on the information highway. Oh...those two words – 'soul' and 'highway' reminds me of those lines from the song “Objects in the rear view mirror “ by MeatLoaf :

“But it was long ago and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far
And if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are“

Click here for the song video>>

I guess I must define the word “CLOSER” as NOT a frightening, ghostly image from the past, instead an endearing, enduring flash or remembrance of the bygone. It cannot be but “closer” to our being right? :-)

Moving out of Amrita campus and setting up a dwelling in Hyderabad gave me what I missed all along over the last 8 years . Eight years in Amrita was sheer delight but I had a price to pay as well , ie. time for myself – time to read , reflect and some times just do nothing. Now I understand how important it is to find time for oneself for, it is only during those moments one can look back in retrospect and reflect. I really do now know how am I going to express my gratitude to my wife Laxmi who took upon herself the responsibility to run our home and let me be with myself. What ever good thing I do will obviously have its deep bearing on the sacrifice she made to bequeath unto me these moments of pilgrimage within. I owe her the same thing... now my dream is to see her having time for herself just the way I revel on. Must get going soon...

Eight years of sheer delight in Amrita – I will remain thankful to the campus and the students who made my inner landscape greener and richer. It has become so internalized that those eight years form an integral part of my mindscape. Now as I reflect in retrospect I realize that many things that happened in my life eventually prepared me for that wonderful phase of my life at Amrita.

Eight years with students from the age group of 16-25 and mind you I was not into teaching. I first walked into the campus, during a terrible phase of my life, as a 28 year old angry young man – confused about career, resentful about relationships and regretful of the mistakes I made...angry with myself and the rest of the world as well I have always wondered how could I get along well with those sweet little frivolous teenagers. There is an old saying that I love “If you are comfortable with yourself, you will be comfortable with others”. Sure, I was so utterly disturbed and perturbed with remorse and retribution swelling up to monstrous levels.

But I did not drown... I was gracefully kept afloat. I have always wondered how and why it happened thus.

Thankfully many things that got infused into my being unawares blossomed forth. Who sowed those seeds that germinated in inner conditions that I deemed hostile all through...or perhaps those seeds were ordained to sprout in such conditions...

As I ponder I am discovering the answers steadily and I realize there are many factors (events and people) I'd love to remain grateful unto my last.

Here is one man who played a decisive role in preparing me thus – my friend Ravi Stephan Saldanha. I write this not just to express my gratitude and reverence for what he was to me then , it is also to redeem the evolving possibilities and primarily to reflect on something that left me awe struck few days back after a brief conversation with him. But before I get at it, one must get a glimpse of passionate-maverick-bubbly fine young man with fire in his belly – and that qualifies him to be called “Zorba the Geek”.

But first one needs to know who Zorba was. Please watch this clipping from the movie “Zorba the Greek”.

This is more of a very personal narrative...but I am sure that it will give enough glimpses ( through Ravi) of what it takes to remain a true friend and above all a gentle human being. Wow..i have been waiting for these stretch back and get lost in remembrance of things past... reliving instances and events that will once again take me to the brink of tears... get soaked in those swirling waters of memories...get basked in the radiance of deeds of kindness and goodness I have been so fortunate enough to be bestowed on. It is going to be nothing less than a pilgrimage for me to walk down the memory lane thus during these days when friendship too revolves around the words “win win-trade off-deals”. Remembering the goodness of others with a deep sense of gratitude and benediction is a deeply moving experience, which often helps us invoke those qualities in us as well. I do not know of a better way of purifying oneself.

What follows will justify it.

After a phase of drifting, when my father found me heading no where and I had no idea of where to go, I joined Hindustan Aviation Academy. Thanks to my father who was kind enough to spend on me again on education at a time when people expected the eldest son to support the family. Thus began the three and a half years of my life as a full time student. Being in a class with fresh +2 graduates, I must have been 24+ I guess then, was initially an experience that made me question my worth even as an individual, leave alone as an aspiring aviation professional. Things became tough when my seniors who came to rag me discovered that I am much elder to them...and sure it must have given them an added pleasure of having a go at me testifying their ragging sophistication. My peers in the class soon gave me an elder-brother-classmate status though my seniors often saw me as a good specimen to fine tune their ragging skills...thus followed the initial few months of anxiety and terrible self doubt.

So there I was in 1995, in a college trying to pursue a highly competitive profession with classmates good number of years younger to me. I was literally on a 'wing and a prayer' in the cloudy sky of self doubt... lot of lonely walks and introspections oscillating between the extremes of new beginnings and points of no return !

That's the time I noticed Ravi first, who apparently got along well with some of the toughest seniors. I initially had a feeling that he is one of those rich spoilt NRI brats and I came to know that he stayed some where deep , alone in a house in the Munnakolala outskirts of Bangalore. Once I walked down to see that place , envying him deep within for having a place all for himself, and once I saw the place my envy became sympathy. I wondered how on earth could this guy born and brought up in Dubai find himself at ease and peace in such a remote place. As I observed him keenly the sympathy I had for him for this terribly lonely predicament of his gradually turned into appreciation for his uncanny ability to get along with people and bubbly sense of humour, some times streaks of sheer brilliance also shone forth when we were in a group discussing something technical. But we were yet to really talk to each other. The first break for that came during the tea break of our college morning sessions.

I was just walking out of the class and he was going out of the campus. He saw me and asked 'coming out?'. As we walked along he asked 'do you smoke?' ...I said 'sometimes' , he had a good laugh at it while he too said 's-o-m-e-t-i-m-e-s'. Initially I think he gave me a good listening and soon I found myself listening when he began to talk. I will never forget that day when he started questioning me outright, challenging my views, presenting alternate views on many things we discussed. It took me quite some time to come in terms with the fact that here is this 18 year old classmate of mine literally flooring me with his incisive reasoning. It was quite a bitter pill to swallow then for, till then I enjoyed immediate acceptance of whatever I spoke to my classmates – I had the taken for granted advantage of being few years elder to them. But then I was feeling out of place all the while because no one really considered me one-among-them and I was pining to feel that togetherness of certain amount of frivolousness and impulsiveness in interactions among peers. Ravi's fierce arguments with me gave me that – I began to feel belonged with no barrier of 'elderliness' in between. Though he took me quite by surprise with his wit, passion with which he did things and deep insights into many things that baffle most of us, he was gentle enough to be explained to when I had a slight upper edge at times ( those occasions were rare though ). He argued and explained with effortless ease, striking originality and most of the time won with abiding grace.

Tea breaks turned fag-sessions soon began to gather more people. Even the ones who did not drink tea of smoked began to join the 10 minute expedition to 'dada's shop' in Marathahalli. They were there to be a part of the stimulating discussions that ranged from movies to metaphysics. It is during one such sessions Ravi displayed his maverick wisdom when some one joined us , we had asked for one tea meant to be divided into two (by 2 or /2 ), and it was just time to rush back. Ravi had no qualms in telling dada to make it /3. That was quite unheard of , dada gazed at him with some sense of consternation! A small glass of tea divided into 2 was till then considered to be the maximum drinkable divisibility. Ravi proved further divisibility and dada from then on had no problem in make /3 tea though it meant less business for him. Well, that was the charm of his expressions which had an inherent persuasiveness that one would happily give into.

Soon those sessions extended to lengthy lunch break. It was quite a scene … people pinching off chappati portions form his plate and when left alone, there was that quintessential Ravi sharing his meal with stray dogs too...some times I have seen him feeding them as well. I had read and heard about the web of life-interconnectedness-compassion to living creatures. But Ravi showed me what it is to feel connected. Though I could never elevate myself to that realm of exemplifying reverence for life , I realized that it is possible for, I could see a living embodiment of it on a day to day basis. So there was this 19 year old guy who by then had become my biggest intellectual challenge and often I looked upon him for guidance as well during those intermittent phases of delusion. It did not take Ravi much to make me realize that age has nothing to do with maturity , an important reckoning that kept me going all through my 8 years at Amrita.

I have always wondered how did Ravi end up doing Avionics engineering in a college that was not quite known then. This guy with his abilities should have been in one of those Ivy-league colleges . I have often felt that Ravi got misguided into this programme. With his inherent curiosity and intelligence he should have been in a place with the finest professors and the best experimental facilities. I got to see Ravi's versatility after the Avionics engineering programme as he went on to become a Geek - a self taught programmer-techie of the maverick kind. We will have a few glimpses of it later.

It was fun watching him ride his bike-he had a Yamaha RX100 (later he bought an Enfield Bullet) that he rode like a Harley Davision. I was in for another shock when some one told that he began riding to the college through Bangalore city traffic with minimum learning practice. No just that, he mostly rode with a pillion rider. I will never forget the fist ride on his bike … it was scary! But then I felt thus only once, after the first ride you feel as if you got enough field experience on Ravi’s bike riding to trust his alertness an instincts for a life time. I got to ride with him many times after that I never got petrified again at his speed or maneuvering. You just feel that this guy is in total control of his bike and the bike responds to him as well like a tamed wild horse. This is my earliest glimpse into man-machine synchronicity – some thing I continue to see in him till this day, be it handling a bike or guitar or any other gadget. Machines responded to him as if they are extensions of his being. That was my first initiation into man-machine synchronicity which I later experienced at Amrita – the only difference was that my interaction was with a couple of web servers. The synchronicity I observed with Ravi and his bike, and later what ever gadgets he handled with ease, is what later opened up pathways for me to work on technologies and platforms I never got formally trained on. The way Ravi stayed in communion with literally every part of his bike and his favourite gadgets made me understand one thing – that apparently inanimate objects can respond and become an extension of your being if you take care of them as an indispensable unit that will facilitate your explorations and expressions.

Music used to be another topic we used to discuss a lot on. I was just a novice in the world of world-music. Though I could not quite listen to much Jazz music , one of his Ravi's intense passions, with him during our college days , later when I got to listen to a bit of Jazz and read about the background of Jazz I got to understand Ravi a bit deeper - his favorite music too defines his inner profile – spontaneity and originality issuing forth with child like glee and abandon. One day I heard him humming a beautiful tune in the captivating even in its humming form itself. When I asked him about it he told it is John Devner's song “Anne's Song”... later he sang it as well in his shack like dwelling in Wilson Garden, he played his guitar too and sang “Anne's song” with such deep self absorption. That was another insight into Ravi.

His shack like dwelling in Wilson Garden...that brings back torrents of memories. Being a typical 'joie de vivre' one , he had little concern for even locking his home. His innate trust-all nature later took a heavy toll on him. But the way he handled his losses makes me call him a indefatigable-magnificent loser as well. I love this beautiful poem One Art by Elizabeth Bishop Ravi I see a living embodiment of that poem.

                                        From that onwards in my next post.

               I must call him now to wish him. Today is his birthday.

                              ...and this is the first birthday gift to him!

... a friend's expressions of reverence, affection and gratitude.