Note: This thought piece is a three-part personal tribute to an unassuming master in our midst, yet it is universal in significance given the sheer perspicacity and pertinence of his wit and wisdom. The locomotive of his conviction steers several intellectual carriages ripe with invigorating insights and infinite possibilities across different disciplines and domains. A dialogue with him is never overbearing, given his trademark lyrical elaboration on even the most clinical phenomena. It's the dignified poise of his freewheeling narration that makes even an intricate subject like spirituality so very delightfully inclusive. If my tribute inspires some of the readers to develop the keenness to probe deeper even into the seemingly obvious, I would consider the effort sanctified, way more than fulfilling.
Part 1 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/08/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html
Part 2 can be accessed at https://coastaldelights.blogspot.com/2019/09/chittaranjan-locomotive-works-of.html
Can you briefly summarize your employment stints? Is it right to say your aversion to settling abroad was inbuilt? How do you look back on your career as an IT professional? Any special memories, trials and triumphs that come to mind?
Yes, looking back on it now, I can say that my aversion to settling abroad must have been inbuilt. And as far as my professional career is concerned, I should mention that for the first five years of my career, I worked as an Industrial engineer in the Management Services Department of a large chemicals and fertilizers company.
I had key charge of the Project Management Cell of a mammoth project – the project of building the world’s largest urea fertilizer plant. It was a grass roots project involving not only the setting up of a fertilizer factory but also a host of activities related to building the external infrastructure such construction of approach roads from the nearest towns, the construction of a 26 km long railway line, the laying of gas pipelines to the gas terminals, the laying of a 22 km long water pipeline, the construction of a 4km submarine outfall system into the sea to ensure that dispersion of treated effluents wouldn’t affect marine life, the construction of a jetty for handling the transportation of oversize equipment, the construction of two townships and a labor colony, etc. All this was in addition to the construction of the factory itself which comprised 3 urea plants of 4500 tons of capacity per day, 2 ammonia plants of 3000 tons capacity per day, a steam generation plant and 2 captive power generation units generating 30 MW of power per day, an effluent treatment plant, water treatment plant, urea storage silos and handling plants, a railway siding in addition to facilities such as fire stations, 2 heavy water plants that were added to the project midway, admin and engineering buildings, etc.
The reason I mention all this is to give an idea of the scale of the planning, scheduling and execution activities that the Project Management Cell had to cater to. All this was related to time management. There was also an elaborate cost-control system that was put in place along with a project incentive scheme. For one starting out on a career, it was a rare opportunity to be able to work on such a project and to bring the quantitative and techniques one had learnt in college into practical application. From the vantage point of the Project Management Cell, I could visualize the project taking shape across the globe with thousands of activities dovetailed one onto another until they coalesced into concrete form in a fertilizer plant in Maharashtra, India. I still remember the day when I was in the field at 3 am in the morning along with the field staff, putting my hand along with theirs, to turn the control valve of the urea reactor to see the first production of urea prills from the world’s largest fertilizer unit. It was a moment of exhilaration to be part of a historic event after having striven for it for 4 long years. The project was the first large public sector project to be completed within both the time and cost targets – no mean achievement for a project of this mammoth size.
After working for 5 years in the area of project management, I moved to the IT field and was given charge to setup the entire IT infrastructure of the fertilizer unit, both hardware and software. Again, it was the kind of opportunity that a person seldom gets at such an early stage in his career. Those were the days of IBM 1401 and ICL 1900 batch-processing computers which I knew would fade out in the coming decades.
Weathered I-card of the first job
I proposed an architecture for an on-line transaction processing system which was then looked upon as a very risky proposition, especially as there were no commercially available relational databases in India at that time and one had to design even things like transaction atomicity and data-integrity schemes as part of the software plan. The corporate office rejected my proposal saying that it would jeopardize the functioning of the entire unit. But I had a scheme in my head and I was confident that it would work, so I made a presentation to the Chairman & Managing Director (CMD). The CMD, himself an Industrial engineer and a dynamic personality, gave me a patient hearing and approved the proposal. One year later, in April 1985, we rolled out the implementation. It made waves all across the public sector corporations and soon we had a stream of visitors from Cabinet Ministers in Delhi, from bureaucrats to CEOs, and from prospective clients of the hardware vendor who had sold us the computer system. This was just the beginning. The system was rolled out at the corporate office too. In the years that followed, the system went through two upgrade cycles and by 1997 we had implemented the country’s first and only distributed database system along with server-clusters and multi-phase commits – the implementation was selected as a model by Ingress Corporation.
The one thing I was lucky to always have, not only in my first job but throughout all my employment stints, was a wonderful team to work with. And I believed in two things: letting the team members know the goal we were working for along with how it would fit into the larger goal of the company and in expressing my confidence in their abilities and capabilities to meet the goal. It always worked, resulting in enthused teams and members that performed beyond normal expectation.
But not everything was hunky-dory in my first job. I also had to undergo a severely testing time during one of the upgrades to the IT system. There was a technical flaw in the Ingress Gateway implemented on the computer hardware (a Data General machine) resulting in acute performance degradation. The Ingress vendor and even the Ingress support center threw up their hands and we were left with a problem that threatened to escalate into a major crisis. During this time, I was also a member of a committee for procuring process control equipment due to my involvement, and a certain amount of expertise I had acquired in distributed process controls, with ammonia and urea plant control systems.
I had refused to put my signature on one of the committee’s recommendations because I could see that the item – a training simulator – was grossly overpriced so much so that one could procure the actual equipment instead of the simulator at a lower cost. What I hadn’t realized was that it was a scam and that its roots lay in the central government in Delhi. The file came back to me again and again for my signature and every time I sent it back with an objection. Soon, I began to face attacks from unexpected directions. I was asked questions about the technical problem we were facing in the Ingress Gateway with ample hints that I had taken bribe to accept an inferior system. At the same time, the trade union leaders began to create problems in the IT department with unreasonable demands and there was even an incidence of sabotage in which the power supply was burnt down. On another occasion, I had to face a mob of around 30 workers who broke the furniture and flower pots in my cabin. After I refused to put my signature on the file yet another time, an enquiry was instigated against me for malfeasance in the procurement of the Ingress database and computer purchase. For around 3 months, I was working for more than 15 hours every day, on one hand for the mitigation of the technical problems in the system and on the other hand facing up to constant attacks on me and my integrity. I went through the enquiry and came out of it unscathed, and also without giving in to the demands of the union. Meanwhile we had found a workaround for the technical problem by building a set of C-routines that connected to the database backend by bypassing the native Ingress gateway. I managed to walk out of the fire successfully but it did have repercussions on my health for some time.
My second job was in one of India’s largest print media companies, as General Manager of its IT set-up. In my first job, I had worked with an attitude of service, quite content with my salary even though it was meager amount. Now, all of a sudden, I was earning three times the amount! Also, the new job was a change from the public sector environment to a private sector environment and, after having worked for 18 years in the public sector culture, I was expecting the change to be traumatic. I was surprised however how easily I fit into the new company’s culture. And one of the first things I had to do was something that was almost unheard of in the public sector: it was to fire a senior employee of the IT department. The sad part of it was that he was a knowledgeable person, deeply conversant with the nuances of the business as well as technically proficient; but the surgery had to be done, for he was given over to Machiavellian ways and was hand-in-glove with a relative of the owner of the company who was scheming to build his own sheikdom in the business. Again, I was surprised at how unemotionally and clinically I was able to perform the surgery. But the fellow had family problems, so I actually helped him get another job!
With that hurdle over, I set about rebuilding the IT team and in planning for rolling out a set of new applications that would enable the business, especially the three areas that were crucial for a print media house: advertisement management, circulation management and newsprint management. Soon, we had a new CEO tasked with revamping the entire corporation. It was an exciting period in which I found myself playing a key role as a technology facilitator for enabling the business in a radically new way, changing the company from a print-media company to a truly multi-media news delivery company. In the year 1999, it was a bold and pioneering move, and the project was named Project Octopus.
Alongside, a company transformation exercise was undertaken, and it was nicknamed FIRE. Within 6 months, the changes that began to come in, both in terms of the circulation on the field and in personnel attitudes, were remarkable, and we were all set to take the lead in the Indian market. But one day, suddenly, the dream came crashing down. There was a disagreement between the CEO and the owner, and the CEO quit the job. For the next 6 months, the IT plans that we were working on hit a roadblock as the funds for it were not released. Ironically, during this period, I was given a raise of 30% in my salary! The whole idea of earning a good package when the funds that were required for implementing the projects were not available was something I couldn’t stomach. I quit the job.
My next job was with an IT startup company. I accepted an invitation to join a friend and a well-known IT professional in his endeavor to build a dream company, as its Executive Director. I was now moving from an in-house IT set up on to the other side, as a director of an IT vendor company. It didn’t make much a difference to me, but the change was initially traumatic for an entirely different reason. I was used to enterprise systems in which I would always conceptualize the IT plans in alignment with the business needs of the company, but here I was, among a group of geeks who discussed TCP/IP, threading and whole lot of technical stuff and with very little business sense in them. But the trauma disappeared by a strange quirk of fate – by the confrontation of a severe crisis that threatened the very survival of the company.
The IT boom on which the startup was based went bust! We had obtained the first tranche of funding from a venture capital company and there was little chance that we would get the second tranche in the prevailing situation. And the CEO had faced so much flak from the venture capitalist that he was averse to even talk to them. Soon there were salary cuts, to the extent of 75%. It was around the same time that my father had to undergo a major surgery. It was a trying time for me. Also I felt that it was not fair to subject the young employees of the company to these kinds of salary cuts. I decided to take things in my own hand. I started a concerted effort at collection follow up - to recover the money shown in the books as accounts receivables. Next, I met the venture capitalist and convinced him to release a part of the second tranche to help us while we looked for business from the Indian market (as against the foreign market that was originally planned as our prime market) until we had broken even. I was given 6 months time to achieve the break even. I personally undertook marketing activities to obtain orders. It showed results. Soon the situation improved sufficiently to pay reasonable salaries to the employees, and we were not only able to break even in 6 months but had enough in our order books to see us through for the immediate future. It was also the right time for me to quit, having brought the business to some reasonable level of comfort.
I joined an IT company that was an off-shoot of a large Indian bank. A unique feature of this company was that it was not merely a services company but also a software products company. I had always believed that Indian IT software companies should strive to not merely offer software services but also acquire intellectual property, and this company’s directions seemed to align with my convictions. It also had the financial clout to backup such an endeavor due to its banking background. But soon I was dismayed by the way it was conducting its business. There was no dream it was trying to fulfill except that of obtaining returns on its investments. New acquisitions were done without giving adequate thought towards assimilating the acquired companies into the organization. It focused too much on performance indicators on paper while its policies and functioning failed to get the best out of the human resources it had. It even followed some pernicious practices like taking infeasible orders brought by sales personnel who had promised the moon to the clients and then stopping the salaries of the team members of the delivery team when the profit margins hit the zero mark. The change that I sought to bring about in the area under my control did not go down well with the top management and I even earned the reputation of being ‘anti-management’. I spent five years in the company before I felt I had had enough of the corporate life and quit the job to pursue my interests in the spiritual field even though I had more than 6 years left to reach my retirement age. I did some consulting for a couple of years after that but quit that too in order to focus entirely on what I wanted to do.
Send-off time: Last corporate stint
What is your take on Indian IT? I have personally never been able to overlook the dark side of software development (More about my lament can be accessed from https://www.indiainfoline.com/article/opinions/paradise-lost-115101900027_1.html)
I think the Indian IT industry had a lot more opportunity than what it has actually managed to capitalize on. As I mentioned earlier on, the industry failed to acquire intellectual properties and focused almost wholly on providing services. Selling software services did bring in revenues but it was essentially a ‘coolie service’. I would put much of the blame for this state of affairs on NASSCOM, the body that was instituted to define the policies which could have made an enormous amount of difference to how the industry would shape up.
And yes, I agree with you about the dark side of software development. I would also add that many programmers in the ‘coolie’ software industry thought they were mini gods striding the earth and that they were entitled to be bestowed with monetary largesse. The story of Indian hardware industry too is a sad story. I believe that the country had capable hardware companies in the early days – such as DCM and HCL – that had made their mark in the field but the government policies in respect of customs duty, etc, inhibited the growth of the industry and literally transformed it into a trading industry. Much has been written about the Indian IT industry by people more qualified than me to do so, so I will not dwell on this topic any longer.
What were the typical workplace challenges you faced in the tug of war between pursuing your spiritual quest and fulfillment of material obligations?
The one thing that I always yearned for and couldn’t get enough of during my professional life was solitude. For a seeker on the path of spirituality, it is important to spend time regularly in solitude. But I must say that much of the blame for this state of affairs has to be laid on me: I take my commitments seriously and tendency to become a workaholic. Having said this, the spiritual path is not all about pursuing the spiritual goal in solitude. Such pursuit constitutes the path of nivritti and it is possible only for whose sadhakas in whom the desire for worldly objects has wholly dissipated. For those of us that still harbor desires for material objects, the pursuit of the spiritual goal is about how we navigate our material pursuits – essentially the pursuit of kama and artha – so that it does not hinder the progress towards the final spiritual goal. It is called the path of pravritti and it is about how we make our choices when confronted with situations where there is a conflict between what is pleasant and what is right. The path of pravritti does not forbid one from pursuing pleasure or wealth but it demands that one shall temper one’s material pursuits so that it does not lead to transgressions of the boundaries of virtue. It is the noble path known in Indian culture as the path of the aryas.
Spiritual workshop in a Mysore temple precinct
The word ‘arya’ does not signify a race as has been made out by Western Indologists but signifies nobility in one’s thoughts and actions. The organic structure of Indian society, which was designed to uphold the arya way of life, has now been corrupted and has been replaced by a societal structure in which all human pursuits are made to sub-serve the pursuit of the shallow ideals of humanism and capitalistic economics. In such a situation, the best one can do is to abide by the principles of universal virtue, such as truthfulness, contentment, compassion, etc, and to maintain one’s personal integrity. By personal integrity, I mean acting in consonance with one’s own nature (swadharma) including the stations and positions one holds in society without allowing the pull of one’s personal emotions or the lure of personal benefit to influence the directedness towards the goal that one’s holding of the station or position demands. To the best of my abilities, I have tried to live by these principles. I may not have always been successful in living up to its highest ideals and would admit to small indiscretions but I do not believe I have allowed myself to sink into any act of moral turpitude. As far as the smaller acts of discretion are concerned, I can only hope that they do not become major impediments to my spiritual progress.
You have traversed different planets in the course of your career, from an independent start up to a PSU corporation, from a leading national media set up to a typical software solution firm, offshoot of a banking entity. How do you look back on the mixed bag of experience?
I have no regrets about the way my professional career has panned out. Before I began my career, I had been contemplating on taking to a life of sannyasa, so I didn’t come into my work life with any vaulting ambition to make money or to climb corporate ladders. And given that the thread of spirituality has stayed with me until now, I can look back on my professional career with some amount of dispassion, like a historian surveying the events of the past, and appreciate that it makes an interesting collage. I have had my ups and downs and have learnt a lot during my experiences about the way the world is today.
From a spiritual angle, I look at it as my inexorable destiny – also called prarabdha karma – working itself out. And when things were very bad with insurmountable roadblocks on the way, or the prospect of ruin facing me, there has always been the hand of Providence that has opened out avenues from unexpected directions and paved the way for me to cross the hurdles and move ahead in my life. I am particularly happy that despite the senior positions I have held since the year 1998 – positions that demanded a lot of my time and attention – I was still able to engage extensively in discussions and debates on philosophical and spiritual topics. These engagements have been useful to me in doing the service that I have undertaken to do at this stage in my life, namely the launching of an initiative for reviving the intellectual tradition of India.
Which were the global/local trends, ideas or movements that influenced you, or shaped your ideals and aspirations? Fashion or lifestyle trends, music bands, philosophical movements, paradigm shifts, and technological breakthroughs etc.
Yes, I mentioned about being caught in the wave of the seventies. I did not mention that during this time, and for some years later as well, I was into building audio systems. I had learnt a fair bit of electronics and acoustics and built many audio systems, often selling one system at half the cost I had incurred in building it so that I could build the next better system. But what began as a hobby soon turned into a search for perfection in sound-reproduction. I got caught in an audiophile movement in which a few crazy people were seeking to achieve that subjective tonal purity of sound which, more often than not, cannot be encapsulated in formal technical specifications.
So, after having built many audio systems using transistors and ICs, I reverted back to good old valve amplifiers and heat dissipating class A amplifies, I moved from CDs back to vinyl records and from multiple driver speakers systems with cross-over networks to full-range drivers sans electronics to achieve better linearity. Then one day, I threw it all up in disgust – for I realized that I wasn’t listening to music anymore but was seeking some imaginary perfection in the reproduction of sound. My involvement with building audio systems came to an end, but it raised for me the question: what is it that we look for in music and the arts? What is the relation between the essential content of a piece of art and the material form through which it manifests? Years later, when I was deeply into philosophy, the question led me into an exploration of the topic of universals and particulars and to study of a bit of the Dhvanyaloka.
Then there was another movement that had an impact on me. It was not really a movement but more of a phenomenon that happened during the first half of the twentieth century. It was the phenomenon of the Vienna Circle. Started by Moritz Schlick, the Vienna Circle was a group of physicists, philosophers and mathematicians that met regularly to discuss and debate fundamental issues of logic, science, language and mathematics. It consisted of people like Ernst Mach, Kurt Godel, Rudolph Carnap, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Albert Einstein and the like. The outcome of the work done by the Vienna Circle has had far reaching influence on both philosophy and science right up to this day. Even though I don’t agree with many of its conclusions, the model of the Vienna Circle, where a group of eminent scholars meet regularly to discuss fundamental issues, has impressed me no end, and I believe such a model would be worth emulating in the Indian context for debating the fundamental issues of our time based on the foundations of Indian thought and Indian philosophy.
Another movement that has held my interest was the philosophical movement to flesh out the meaning of history as well as to define the contours of historiography, especially the movement that began in Europe in the post-Kantian period. Again, I think it would be interesting to investigate these questions from out of the framework of Indian philosophy. Something similar, based on the framework of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman world, was undertaken by the twentieth-century philosopher-historian Eric Voegelin.
CN with daughter Akshara
Could you cite any career accomplishments that gave you spiritual delight or a semblance of it? In other words, any professional pursuit where the two disparate worlds seemed to merge into each other?
Any activity in which there is absorption and dissolution of the subject-object duality – called ‘laya’ in Sanskrit – may be considered as a kind of spiritual activity. I have experienced this sometimes even in my professional life. But I wouldn’t really call these as spiritual experiences except in a trivial sense. For the absorption to be truly a spiritual experience the experience has to be of not mere absorption but the attention has also to be constantly fixed on the Noumenal Ground from which the forms of the universe arise and subside. Such fixedness in the Noumenal Ground is possible for only those who have achieved a great degree of perfection in the spiritual path. It is the state of being a sthitha-prajna. The ancient philosopher-kings such as Janaka and some of the emperors of the Ikshvaku and Chandravaunshi lineage were such sthitha-prajnas, continuing to execute their worldly activities even when remaining fixed in the spiritual source. For most seekers on the path of spirituality, this would hardly be possible.
But spirituality is not all about having special experiences. It is also about that inner transformation by which the spiritual dimension enters the realm of our mundane activities. This is the path of pravritti-dharma by which we strive to sacralize the worldly activities by regulating our actions in accordance with the intrinsic natures of the stations and positions we occupy in this world. It brings about an inner strength and poise that paves the way for the spiritual fire to ignite within us and thereby to experience the delights of the Numinous Region. I believe that when a significant number of people in a society follow the path of pravritti, we will have Ram Rajya, the reflection in this world of the archetype of the Perfect State as imprinted in Eternity.
CN with his mother
Could you also share a personal fact file of yours?
My mother, now 90, lives in Bangalore. So, I keep shuttling between Mumbai and Bangalore. I met my wife Vijaya in RCF and we eventually got married. Our daughter Akshara works as a PeopleSoft Consulting Manager in California. I have two sisters; both are doctors long settled in the US. I must say my aversion to settling abroad has been more than compensated by other members in the family.