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.
The span 2003-2004 was one of the most trying phases of my life. The severity of the IT downturn was at its peak, the futility of a career in business analysis and marketing communications with a series of confused IT set ups was beginning to hit me hard, I was deeply pained by the dark side of software development, where the same old devils of power distance, ruthless ambition and narcissism were at play and where a handful of smart and wily operators merrily ruled over a veritable but vulnerable majority. The Machiavellian machinations in a prior career stint had caused me great anguish, the mounting pressure of feeding and sheltering a growing family was driving me crazy and key familial relationships were turning sour, thanks to my dwindling finances and fractured reputation in social circles. But all distress paled into insignificance before my mom’s ill health. She was grappling with the ruthless invasion of secondary breast cancer; she was literally on her death bed although it never seemed so, partly because of my wishful thinking and partly because of her exceptional courage in locking horns with the ghastly blows of the terminal disease. Just when she was getting closer to the ultimate voyage, I joined a new IT set up, a nondescript offshoot of a banking major, in the capacity of a pre-sales consultant. The work environment was homely, thanks to a young bunch of staffers – a great blend of innocence and ignorance - who sincerely believed that the pre-sales function was a more dignified name for a postman’s job, one who gathered tidbits from different departments to prepare a harried response to RFPs and RFIs, adorned with the choicest content droplets duly cut-copied-pasted from the highly magnanimous ocean called the internet. This work culture didn’t bother me much, thanks to my heavy baggage of woes and the company of few selfless co-workers like the tall and lanky Ajit Nair, whose unconditional smile was one of the few bright spots of my tenure.
Shunning aside the despondency over my mom’s health, I devoted all my time in preparing a data migration concept paper which I named Songbird (pitted against Hummingbird, an established productized offering) and archived it in our central repository. Any spare time was spent frantically surfing the internet to find some miracle cure for my mom’s condition. One fine day, thanks to the overzealous nature of one of my colleagues, my concept paper was informally shared with a group that had been chosen for generating business in the US. The group head, a man of fickle morals, unabashedly claimed ownership, nay authorship, over the paper. The group went on to win a couple of prized US contracts based solely on the paper’s conceptual merit. Needless to say, I was happy to see my effort bear fruit for the company but I was distraught at having been ignored in such crude fashion. To make matters worse, which is a favorite preoccupation of fate, my mom passed away.
One dynamic individual – the benevolent head of my department known for his cheerful disposition and non-interfering ways - helped me rise above the helplessness that my situation had thrust upon me. In his august company, I was able to lend remarkable grace to my silent mourning. I still remember him handing over a copy of Yog Vashisth and introducing me to the transcendental universe of Ramana Maharshi and his teachings. Over time, I had the opportunity to discuss a host of issues with him, ranging from software to spirituality, academia to industry, and physics to philosophy. I equally relished the brainstorming sessions with him on key proposals and concept papers, including Songbird.
I invariably found him lost in work, seated at his cabin desk even at odd hours. To me, he was always a Yogi in jagrut samadhi, refreshingly different from the 'boss' you would expect in a typical software development firm. His stoic calm in dealing with office matters, his genuine concern for the well being of his team, and the aura of positivity he brought to our mundane affairs…these are experiences I consider my cherished treasures.
Meet Chittaranjan Naik (CN), whose intellect and instinct go way beyond the sum total of his twin degrees: B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering and M-Tech in Industrial Engineering from IIT Madras. Before the Q and A that seeks to capture the essence of his conviction, vision, mission and values in full measure, it would be prudent to share a biography of sorts.
CN was born in Kumta, Karnataka, on the 24th of July, 1954. About a year later, his father, who then served in the State Govt. Civil Services, was transferred to Belgaum. After a three-year stint in Belgaum, he was transferred to Bangalore where CN spent all his schooling years. He was enrolled into an English school; his father reckoned it apt for seeding the dream career he had in mind for his son, as an IAS officer. CN’s initial schooling happened in an English school run by the Anglo-Indian staff of the Indian railways. He subsequently moved to the up-end Bishop Cottons School where he studied right up to the 11th standard, which was the time he appeared for the Indian School certificate exams, then called the Senior Cambridge exams.
The next seven years of his life – from 1971 to 1978 - were spent at the coveted IIT Madras, five for B-Tech and two for M-Tech. During the early B-Tech years, CN was engulfed by the wave of a new age anti-establishment movement which encapsulated the hippie movement. Overtly consumed by an elusive angst, he yearned to seek blissful refuge in the natural bounties of the earth; this was the time he also experimented with marijuana to the accompaniment of folk-rock music of the late sixties and seventies.
It was during his M-Tech days that his life underwent a momentous change. In 1977, he had a powerful epiphanic experience that blessed him with a deep visceral insight into the nature of reality and the realm of the spiritual world. The undercurrent of that experience has not left him ever since; it has become a predominant guiding influence at work and in life.
The litany of spiritual experiences that followed left him intensely averse to seek the beaten track of employment for paving a lucrative career path. He refused a campus interview offer of a prized job at TCS and spent the whole year poring over different books on philosophy and religion, both Indian and Western. But since he couldn’t live off his father’s income forever and could not take up sannyasa either; he took up the first job offer that came his way in April 1979, with the well-known PSU Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilizers Ltd (RCF).
At the RCF desk
He was with RCF for a good 18 years. For the first five years, he worked in the Management Services Department, on the planning and execution of the world’s largest fertilizer project. The next 13 were spent in seeding and establishing the IT wing of the organization. Notwithstanding the meager financial compensation, he considers the experience at RCF as the high point of his career.
With the then Minister of Fertilizers and Chemicals
From Aug 1997 to Dec 2000, he worked as the General Manager of Information Systems at the Corporate Office of a reputed media house. This was the tenure which had him work hard to build a dream only to watch it turn sour. This tryst proved a mixed bag of experience, financially rewarding and challenging work-wise but cursed with a disastrously abrupt end, right in the middle of a roller-coaster transformation initiative, due to a conflict between the group owner and the CEO.
In Dec 2000, CN teamed up with a friend, a well-known IT professional, in his endeavor to build a maverick company, riding on the buoyant IT wave of the time. CN was given the eminent title of Executive Director. But soon after, the IT boom went bust, and the dream turned into a nightmare. There were massive salary cuts, and a total shutdown seemed imminent. It was during this unsparing phase that he learnt what it means to run a small business, how to steer it through its bleakest period, how to diligently follow up on collections so that the minimum-salaries of employees could be paid, how to keep the teams motivated at all times, and how to bring things back to a minimum level of comfort.
In March 2003, after a total financial washout, CN joined an IT setup that was backed by the enormous financial clout of, and guaranteed business from, a well known bank. He reckoned it had the kind of stable foundations that could take it to great heights, but somewhere something was amiss: the setup lacked an inspired leader and an inspirational guiding theme; it revolved more around the one-dimensional idea that the company was an investment opportunity for financial returns and growth. The company simply went on a reckless acquisition spree without adequate planning for assimilating the acquired companies into the organization. CN was deeply pained by the fact that the venture failed to make the most of the human resource talent it possessed.
An outing with colleagues
By 2007, CN had had enough of corporate life. From 1998, he had been participating in philosophy discussions, firstly on The Philosopher’s Magazine (UK) Discussion Forum (now defunct), and then in two Vedanta forums. In Nov 2007, he decided to devote more time to the spiritual pursuit and resigned from his job, despite being a good 6.5 years away from retirement age.
He did part-time consulting work for a couple of years but called it quits in August 2011. Since then, he is busy reviving the Indian intellectual tradition that was thriving till the 17th century but which is lost on most people today. His mission is aimed at bringing together the scholars of Indian knowledge-systems, who are still in our midst, and promoting an exchange between their ideas and those of the contemporary world. He is aware that the task is monumental, with a slim chance of success, but he is pursuing it as an integral part of his spiritual sadhana.
Moving on to the Q and A…
How was life during your growing-up years? Can you describe a typical school day?
There were two distinct strands to my life during those years. The first was fashioned by the schooling I underwent in Bangalore; the second was shaped in the lap of nature during the time I spent in my native village. My father was among the first generation in the family to migrate from the country to the city. Having studied up to BSc (Hons), he wanted me to get the best of education, so he enrolled me into Bishop Cottons even though he could ill afford it at that time. So, there I was, a modest lower middle-class student traveling six kilometers to and fro in a bus, while some of my schoolmates came to school from the plush areas of the city in lavish Impala cars. The dichotomy between my background and theirs instilled in me a sense of inferiority. It took me some time to get over that feeling and return to my natural boyish spontaneity. But once I had got over the culture shock, school was fun, both in terms of academics and sports. Subsequently, I developed a liking for physics and literature. I was motivated by some remarkable and unforgettable teachers. All my school-day interests have stayed with me all my life unlike my interest in cricket. I had a large measure of it during my school days, but the passion disappeared when I entered college.
The second strand has perhaps had a more intimate influence on me. The summer and winter visits to my native place – a small village near Kumta in Karnataka called Valgalli where my grandparents lived - have left an indelible mark on my mind. Set among verdant hills and forests, it was a remarkably beautiful place, with flowing streams and stilled lakes nestled among wooded hills. The place was teeming with birds of many varieties, of various hues and colours, flying, diving into the water, or flitting about from tree to tree. In that veritable Garden of Eden, it seemed to me that nature had come alive on a shimmering canvas of life. And the mystery of the night, with no electricity to mar the beauty of the night-sky, I am afraid, is lost forever. The images and memories that have been imprinted on my mind from those visits define for me a pristine world, and even today my mind often descends on it in solitary flights.
Who were your childhood idols and friends ? Are you still in touch with any?
I am not sure if I had childhood idols in the sense of having overtly idolized anyone. I had childhood friends, of course, with whom I shared close camaraderie. I am still in touch with a few of them though the communication is now sparse.Having said that, I need to mention the individuals I idolized; the fact that I idolized them was hidden in my sub-conscious mind, and it was only years later that I realized who they were and how deeply I was bound to them by something more than mere admiration. One of them was my maternal grandfather, or more accurately my maternal grandfather’s brother. As a young man, he had walked 600 km on foot to meet Sri Ramana Maharshi and had stayed with the Maharshi for a few days. On returning from Arunachalashrama, he renounced the world and lived in a small hut on the outskirts of Kumta. He stayed there for the next 40 years or so, contemplating on the atman, immersed in it and speaking of nothing but the atman. My visits to my native place always included a visit to his humble hut. I was too young and inexperienced then to realize the significance of his achievements, but I was struck by the singularity of his purpose accompanied by the joyous spontaneity that characterized his persona. Somewhere in my sub-conscious mind it seemed to me that this is the way one should live, in unassuming simplicity, attuned to the rhythm of nature’s will. It was only years later, when I had a better grasp of the meaning of the spiritual life, that the magnitude of his spiritual achievements, and the realization that I was then in the presence of an unsung hero, struck me like it should. Needless to say, he remains as an exemplar in my own spiritual quest.
The story of how I discovered the other childhood idol of mine would sound incredible, even bizarre, to most people. I must have been around 12 years of age when someone gifted a book to my father. That book was kept in the drawer of a wooden table in the living room of our house. One day I opened the drawer of the table and found a book, staring at me. As I read the title of the book – Dialogues of Plato - an uncanny feeling enveloped me. There was something intensely familiar about that book and its title. I had never heard of Plato before, yet, as I stared at the book, I had an intense feeling of Déjà Vu, as if it reminded me of something from my own past. Four years passed by and I forgot all about this incident. Then one day, when my English teacher was reading out a passage from Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’, I had the same feeling. The passage was a citation from Plato’s dialogue called ‘Alcibiades’. Nehru was quoting Alcibiades to show that a large section of the Indian populace was affected by Gandhi in the same manner as Alcibiades was by Socrates. I was entranced by those words and I had the same experience linked with Dialogues of Plato. Why was it that the mention of Plato, or Socrates, should suggest something to me and affect me in this way? I had no answer to the question. The answer came 10 years later, in the year 1979. I was attending an extended program on Project Management at NITIE in Mumbai. One weekend, whilst most of the other participants had gone out to the city, I stayed back and visited the Institute’s library instead. There, on one of the shelves, I came across the book ‘Last Days of Socrates’ by Plato. I turned its pages and began to read one of the dialogues. It was the Phaedo. As I read on, a strange thrill went through my being, for I knew that this was not something I was reading for the first time! I already knew Plato’s philosophy! And I even knew what was going to come in the next few pages. I had never read Plato before, and I had heard that it was not an easy thing to fathom his philosophy but here was his philosophy, opened out to me like the pages of my own heart! As I have mentioned before, all this may sound bizarre to most people but I wouldn’t be surprised if in a previous birth of mine, I was one of those youths who had followed Socrates through the streets of Athens looking upon him wide-eyed as he debated and cross-questioned the Sophists and gentry of Greece.
How was your academic performance at school?
It wasn’t too bad. I usually ranked between 2nd and 6th but I never topped the class. Even in the ISC Board exam, I missed the top position in school by 5 marks and the 10th rank in the state by 7 marks. That’s how it has been all along. But even though I might have never topped the class, I did manage to hit the nadir once. It was when I was in the 6th standard. I was so self-assured that I would always be among the first five or six but when the results were out, I found myself ranked 24th in the class of 30! That was a good lesson to me: to never take anything for granted and to keep my presumptuousness in check!
What were your favorite subjects during your formative years?
Physics and English literature. I also loved mathematics initially, but by the time I had moved to college, it had become a love-hate relationship, as I did not fancy losing sight of the semantics while focusing on the syntactical rules - as mathematics entails - especially when dealing with long and complex equations. This has a deep philosophical significance and I realized it only in recent years after I had started my explorations into the foundations of logic.
My love for literature began quite early, during one of my childhood visits to my native place. My grandfather was a freedom fighter and later the headmaster of the village school. He had collected a large number of books, and among them were English classics by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Jonathon Swift, Nathaniel Hawthorne, to name a few. These books had no readers in the house, so they had found their way into the attic, or ‘atta’ as it is called in Kannada. That is where I discovered them, generously layered with dust. I began to read them, often while sitting on the branch of some tree or the other in the large orchard that my grandfather had developed and nurtured, and I must say the environment provided a delightful setting for getting acquainted with the pleasures of English literature. Later, I moved on to Wordsworth and Shelley, Shakespeare and the Greek Classics, thanks also to an appreciation of poetry and prose instilled in me by my English teacher.
Meanwhile, I had also been reading books on science, and it fueled my abiding interest in two areas: physics and aeronautics. I had a habit of exploring beyond the boundaries of school textbooks and by the time I had passed out of school I had learnt a fair bit of aerodynamics, aircraft control systems, propulsion systems and astronautics. Alongside classic literature, I became an avid reader of science fiction as well as of books on history of aviation. Around this time, I took up aeromodelling as a hobby and was happy to fly self-built rubber-band-powered aircrafts for all of 90 seconds!
To be continued…