A Really Rambling Account of the Life and Times of Me

My name is Saurabh, written in my mother tongue Bengali as . Curiously enough, it means "fragrance". I would sure like to know whose brainwave that was. I was saddled with this name soon after my birth. My birth was certainly an important event for me, but strangely I do not remember any of it. I have it on authority that this momentous event took place at Calcutta , the capital of West Bengal, in India on the 24th day of August shortly after the clock had announced midday. I thus got to share the birth date with the city of Calcutta . Calcutta was born thanks to the intrepid soldier of the East India Company, Job Charnock, who set anchor there having been heckled beyond what his English patience could stand, by the Mughals in other parts of West Bengal . In 2001 the Calcutta High Court, in a burst of nationalistic fervor, ruled that a settlement had existed at the current spot of Calcutta long before Job Charnock set foot there. Hence, in its book, Calcutta has no birth date. Nevertheless, I rarely pass on the opportunity to bring this up, fiddlesticks to the venerable justices.

My father worked for the Federal Government in India, for the Department of Telecommunications in fact. His job as a Civil Engineer involved building tall telecommunication towers, climbing to their top to inspect the tower’s durability and to appreciate the views from that high up, and then building more buildings (telephone exchanges, etc.).  The job also involved being transferred to a different part of the country every 3-5 years. Thanks to this, I got to make lots of new friends, got yanked from different schools, and my old friends transitioned to the long list of pen friends. I also got to see a lot of interesting places in India . My mother stayed at home raising the two daredevils, me and my younger brother Sutirtha. In between running us to the swimming lesson, the tutors for English and Physics and Mathematics, and getting us to eat anything other than Maggi Noodles, she managed to instill in us the belief that doing right by even the most insignificant person you meet, is always the right thing. My brother didn’t see half as many places, since he was packed off to a hostel to shield him from all these travels (and travails). I always one-up him on the number of states that I have stayed at. Some of the places I have stayed at are below. Looking back through the lens of nostalgia, I of course only recollect how wonderful each was:

·         Jabalpore - a small scenic city in Madhya Pradesh, the largest state (area-wise) of India, known for its marble rocks.  The city was very friendly toward two-wheelers and I am told that I would hitch a ride with many of my father’s colleagues at the back of their two-wheelers and see the sights and sounds of the city. Now I know where my love of bicycling off the roads comes from.

·         Shillong - the capital of Meghalaya in the remote north-east of the country. Meghalaya literally means "Abode of the clouds" and you better believe it. It is a wondrous land of magnificent beauty, undulating hills, virgin forests, cascading waterfalls, and simple Khasi people. Incidentally, the world's wettest spot - Mawsynram (in terms of average annual rainfall) - is also in Meghalaya. Shillong is reachable by curvy roads from Guwahati in Assam , which is the closest trains go. The roads would make you close your eyes initially since they are skirted by deep gorges on one side, but then the "ooh"s and "aah"s on the beauty of the sights around you will cause you to open your eyes. A sign of how remote some places in Meghalaya that I went to – wide-eyed Khasi people would point to us and say “Look they are from India ”. If you go to Shillong today, do visit my school: St. Edmund’s – English preppie school type with immaculate landscape and views of snow-capped peaks from the classrooms, and check out the thriving western music scene of Shillong.

·         Trivandrum - a city in the southern Indian state of Kerala known for its temples and the Kovalam beach. Kerala is a small state that has become a shining example for the rest of India in many ways, with the maximum literacy rates (above 90%) and similar distinctions in infant mortality and life expectancy. I had the experience of not understanding a word of the language spoken there and got good with sign language skills, which have stood me well in trips to foreign lands that I make now as part of my professional duties. A vivid image of Kerala is droves of school-going kids in uniforms who practically take over the roads during the times when school starts and lets off. I remember that Kerala bucks the trend of most of India of not following rules and things automatically falling in place from amidst the glorious chaos. In Kerala, things were orderly down to the exact amout of tea they will pour in your teacup as you dove into a vigorous debate on some highly esoteric topic.

But through all my wanderings, I kept coming back to my home city of Calcutta and finally settled down there to go through the advanced years of my schooling at South Point. South Point for a while had the dubious distinction of being the largest school in the world (in terms of number of students). Whether to display the Guinness Book citation proudly in the principal’s office or jettison a few hundred students to get off the list – that was a question that divided the students and the parents alike. South Point gave me wonderful teachers, who taught me skills in writing and reasoning that have survived the years. I also learned to innovate different sports activities since the school had only a tiny sliver of playspace and we jostled with the unending multitude of my schoolmates for that sliver. Thus I learned to play cricket where getting the ball outside a small periphery would get you out.

Calcutta is a city crowded, vicious, noisy, bustling, vibrant and friendly - all that and more, all at once. It's a city where you can sit in the ubiquitious "coffee houses" for hours and argue vehemently on anything from Bush’s GPA at Yale, to the blessings of the Tata Nano, to the accompaniment of cigarette puffs while you down tea (“cha” in Bengali if you want to order it during your stroll through the city) by the gallon. West Bengal may be one of the few remaining bastions of Marxism in the world, and has been ruled by Communist governments continuously for more than 30 years now. This "distinction" came to an end in 2011 when the Communists were toppled giving Marx and Engels and Lenin severe heartburn. Bengalis are fiercely proud of their sweets and their fish dishes, their greats - Rabindranath, Satyajit Ray, Mother Teresa, and in more recent times, Sourav (there must be something to that name after all) Ganguly and Amartya Sen, and above all, the sights, sounds and smells of dear old Calcutta. It has seen an upswing in high tech multi-national companies setting up shop in the city, egged on by an increasingly entrepreneur friendly state government. Do not be fooled by my city's surface dust, it conceals gems within it.

I had my first brush with notoriety after my 10th grade state-wide exam results came out. The many nights of frantic memorizing Mughal emperors’ birth dates (aka, history) and all the places where bauxite was mined in India (aka, geography) bore fruit and I made the top 20 list. These many pats on the back are sure to cause a lasting effect. They eventually got to my head and I really dug into Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics and came out 2nd in the 12th grade exams. I would really like to know where the guy who pipped me by a good 40 points (that is like a light year in the Higher Secondary exam) landed up.

After completing my 12th grade, I went through the grind of the entrance tests for entering engineering schools. Aided by oodles of luck, grace of some supernatural power, and the tremendous will-force of my parents, I entered the portals of that hallowed engineering institution in India , called the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), at their Kharagpur campus. I also got to do Computer Science and Engineering, a department and a field that was your parent's straight ticket to lifelong bragging rights and was reserved for only those who had done deep penance in the high Himalayas in honor of the IIT gods. I had occasion to meet some really smart students (all those pesky batchmates who seemed to just get the theorems right away, and I would have to nod so as not to appear stupid), some great professors (PPC with his algo class was stunning, so were TKD, PPD, AB, …). I picked up some programming (C; Java was a distant mystery to academicians then) and as destined, come out a brand new shining software engineer at the end of the four year pipeline.

True to the sacred tradition of my alma mater, I set forth for the US after graduation. Not being content to have waded through 30,000 honorable tomes of computer science during my undergraduate studies, I got this primal urge to plough through another few thousands. That together with a king-sized ego of trying to change the world a wee bit through computer research led me to the thorny highways and bylanes of a Ph.D. degree. I came to the seemingly sleepy little town of Urbana-Champaign (ok, these are two towns if you want to be technical), about 130 miles south of Chicago. I discovered some things quickly – the sleepy town is not so sleepy with 36,000 cheering Illini fans, though we managed to lose 80% of the football and 60% of the basketball games the four years I was there. It was also not very sleepy for me because my advisor, Ravi (Iyer), took it in him to teach me what fault tolerant computing meant, in double quick time. My childhood paranoia about worst case scenarios helped me immeasurably in designing fault tolerant systems – Ravi came up with the name “Chameleon” for the system that I worked on, though I lay claim to “ARMOR” – a component within Chameleon. I did not do just Computer Science there – I made use of the endless variety of classes being offered at UIUC. Since Ravi was footing the bill, I got to take French, ice skating, Sanskrit, bowling, wine tasting. Aah, it is such a relief to finally get this all off my chest. I guess Ravi and my grad school colleagues got tired of answering all my questions and wanted me out. So I found myself defending my thesis in 2001. The committee was in a genial mood and signed off on the dotted line and I found myself walking the walk at the 2001 commencement. My commencement speaker was Stan Ikenberry, a past president of the University of Illinois . He had such an impressive resume but when I drop his name in a bar on a Friday night, it does not generate much excitement, alas!

Having graduated from UIUC, I realized I would like to keep poring through more Computer Science tomes, and hopefully, write some myself. I also got the bug of spreading the knowledge, filling brains of upcoming CS professionals with bright and bold ideas, tell them some of the cardinal truths of the field, such as, CS does not equal Programming, if you are a CS professional, you will not necessarily have to relocate to Bangalore, etc. So I became a faculty member at Purdue, in the sleepy but beautiful town of West Lafayette. Working with smart colleagues and students, an ability to nurse an impetuous curious urge to know something just for the sake of knowing, exploring fancy, and occasionally fanciful, ideas to solve some nutty problem in CS - what's not to like about the job of a faculty member at a place like Purdue. Rising up through the ranks of academia, you feel you can fly as high as your imagination, though proposal and paper rejects try hard to rein in your flights, but with stunning failure at that.

One fortuitous day in 2003, I revved up my Nissan and drove to Chicago for an ethnic festival. I met Somali there, who was doing her Masters at the University of Illinois and the rest is a poem, to be shared over a glass of Muscato at our house one of these days. She did her PhD in Biomedical Engineering at Purdue, my best lawyerly arguments having persuaded her to sacrifice the charms of the megalopolis of Chicago for the simpler pleasures of West Lafayette . She has kept me sane (to some extent), on my toes (especially, when she zips past me during our bike rides), energetic (whenever I feel like lolling too much, she lets me know), and fun (no professorial airs). And then she accepted an offer for post-doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin where she is discovering the joys of the two-body problem which has flummoxed many noted physicists.

I am liking this journey enormously – so far, so excellent. The views from the beaches of D-Day, the top of the palm tree in Tahiti, the surf board in Florianapolis, and the cage on the London Eye have all been great. But the view through my office window of the Purdue Bell Tower against the dusky sky is the best of all. I will tell you if it changes.

Last updated: February 6, 2012

Saurabh Bagchi