"Manju, please give Tapan some fish you cook," mother implored with her sister, in my presence. I was embarrassed and moved at the same time by her plea. In her mind, mother was hoping Bangladesh would be free one day, for her to return to Matlab, and me to Bangladesh (BD) University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) to finish my degree. I needed to be in reasonable health to study and do well upon my return, she thought. A mother's interest in her offspring's well-being is enduring and culture-transcending.
Mother and I were in Boro Jagulia, a village in West Bengal (WB), India, as a refugee during the1971 Liberation War. Manju mashi (mashi a Bengali Hindu salutation for a mother's sister) gave us a tiny shed, within walking distance of the Haringhata Refugee Camp, set up by the Indian govt. She also gave shelter to another refugee family, her husband's younger brother and his wife, from Laksam, BD. With three children of her own, and with a modest income from her husband's grocery store in the market, Manju mashi was stretched beyond her yield point. She did not have anything left to feed us two. Subsisting on rationed rice and lentils collected from the refugee camp, mother could see her son, then a 21-year-old, top-of-the-class third-year student from EPUET, becoming emaciated from lack of nutrition and depressed from seeing no prospect of returning to BD.
One day, while lying on my back inside the shed in Boro Jagulia and pondering sadly over my future, after hearing the news of my classmates back at then EPUET, writing the third year final exams, my eyes were drawn to a movement on the interior side of the thatched roof. It was what I did not want it to be. "A snake!" I screamed and jumped out of the bed, in no time, to get out. A few months earlier, a snake had bitten my mami (a Bengali Hindu salutation for a maternal uncle's wife), when she was walking barefooted in the darkness of her yard, after serving us rice and dal at night. It was on the very night mother and I had arrived at her rural house near Sera pore, WB, India, after crossing the Bangladesh-India border near Agartala, India, and taking a train through Assam, going north, then west, and finally south to be in WB, India, tracing an almost C-shaped route around BD. Before that, for several days, we walked, once rode a boat, while staying with good-natured strangers and a relative, on our way to the border. Then one night, aided by a paid agent, we walked for hours, after the villagers had gone to sleep and the soldiers had gone back to their barracks, to cross the border. We were relieved to be in India. But it turned out that, in 1971, danger followed us on both sides of the border: danger from Pakistani army hunting for Hindu minorities, liberation supporters, and Bengali intellectuals, on one side; dangers from snakes and cross-fires between two warring political groups (CPIM cadres and Naxalites) in WB, India, on the other.
On 16 December, 1971, mother's hope became a reality, amidst sounds of conch shells and slogans of ?Joy Bangla?. Full of joy and hope, we returned to our little house at Matlab. Joy turned to misery when we found our house was not there anymore. I had to return to BUET. (With help from others, mother was able to retrieve the house later.) At BUET, still suffering from the ill-effects --- physical and psychological --- of being a refugee for nine months, I had difficulty concentrating on studies. But I persevered, mindful of mother's hope and her plea to Manju mashi in India for providing me nutrition. Difficulties notwithstanding, I placed at the top of my class, securing Honours, a rare distinction --- in a difficult experimental yearly system ---a distinction which only another student from chemical engineering had been able to achieve, up to 1972.
Fortunately, mother was around to hear that news. She was also around to hear the news of my: joining BUET as a lecturer in 1973; being nominated for the Faculty of Engineering Gold Medal Award as the top student in MASc at University of Waterloo (UW), Canada, in 1977; and finishing PhD from UW (in a different area of ChE from that in MASc) in 2.5 years, in 1979; getting a job, first with Alberta Research Council, Edmonton, Canada, and, a year later, with Company A (name not disclosed), an affiliate of Company X (not real name), in Calgary, Canada. I was then transferred to in Houston, for what would turn out to be a transformational experience.
"Have you talked to Dr Warhol (Dr W; not his real name)?" the division manager from Company X asked at the end of my confident presentation in a conference room in the research centre on the oak-shaded street in Houston, Texas.
"Why should I?" were three words that blurted out of my mouth. Three seemingly innocent words. But in that context and atmosphere, those sounded impudent; they went against the rigid corporate culture of a petroleum giant that Company X was then and still is --- a symbol of decades of excellence in prudent investment and flawless execution.
Right after I had uttered those words, the air seemed to have been sucked out of the room. Nobody talked. Nobody moved. It was in the early nineties. I just finished presenting the fruit of my labour --- countless hours of research over several months that took me multiple times to Rice University library in Houston, after work and over the weekends, reading and trying to decipher journal articles on statistics and econometrics (statistics in economics). It was not my assigned project, or in my area of expertise. On my own initiative, I worked on it against a quibble from my technical leader, Dr Lamp (Dr L; not his real name). His issue was that a highly-regarded colleague had already worked on it for months, but could not make any headway. Furthermore, I was in Houston on an assignment from Company A, a Company X's affiliate in Calgary, to do research on an assigned project, and not to dive into unchartered muddy water in the Gulf of Mexico, so to speak. I was acting like "a fool rushing in where angels fear to tread".
Clearing his throat, Dr L came to my rehabilitation by saying: "What Tapan meant to say was that he had not talked to Dr W yet, but would
definitely do so soon."
(The remaining part of this article will appear tomorrow.)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada