Saturday, December 12, 2015, Agrahayan 28, 1422 BS, Safar 29, 1437 Hijri


An indomitable will
Tapan Chakrabarty
Published :Saturday, 12 December, 2015,  Time : 12:00 AM  View Count : 231
I had many reasons for my response. First, being from the same department, Dr W was aware of the problem; if he could, he would have helped already. Second, he might have thrown a bucket of cold water on the approach, nipping it in the bud. Third, experts are not always fond of new ideas from others; they are good for critical review of the idea, once it is supported by proof-of-concept tests. Fourth, there is the possibility of an expert running away with an idea. And for that there were precedents.
There is a Bengali aphorism: 'A cow once burnt is fearful of a vermillion sky.' I was burnt a few years earlier, when my lab research results were eyed as being low-hanging fruits and pilfered by a Calgary colleague (not with the company anymore) to publish a paper that won him the Journal of Canadian Petroleum Technology (JCPT) best paper award. He submitted the paper when I was on assignment in Houston, renouncing his promise to me of a joint authorship, and ignoring an objection from my Calgary manager.
Raised in rural Matlab, I was naturally shy and meek. Being from Bangladesh, I was, by culture, not assertive and skilled at publicizing and protecting my accomplishments. Employees like us are taken advantage of in a corporate world, where getting ahead at the expense of others or taking credit for others accomplishments are not uncommon. I came to realize that traits that are valued in Bangladesh and encouraged at BUET, did not do me much good, in terms of recognition and advancement. I needed to transform.
An inspiration to transform came, in no small part, from a seminar I attended at University of Houston (UH), Texas, in the early eighties. The presenter was then a UH distinguished professor, Dr Fazle Hussain (Dr FH), a world-renowned BUET alumnus. While presenting his research on new insights into turbulence (fluid mechanics) to his colleagues and graduate students, Dr FH sounded confident, energetic, and articulate. I, with some background in fluid mechanics at BUET ChE, understood the essence of what he was presenting. During the presentation, a researcher from the audience commented that someone from an eastern European country had done something similar. Dr FH, quick on his feet, answered instantly: "If someone had done it, I would have known." The questioner did not pursue further. And Dr FH moved on with the rest of the presentation. Sitting there, I was surprised and pleased with the aplomb of a BUET alumnus, usually not known for possessing such an attribute. (It would be decades later that I would read about Dr FH's assertiveness, while championing fellow students' causes at EPUET.)
In the Company X meeting, I was presenting a statistical method for quantifying minerals in petroleum reservoir rocks. Minerals affect the quality of a reservoir and its petroleum production potential. They also influence the choice of the apposite recovery method. The method in use at Company X, prior to my involvement, took hours to analyze one rock sample. A colleague was pursuing an alternate approach. That approach was faster, but produced unrealistic values for mineral fractions. A seminar by a Harvard intern, working on that approach, piqued my curiosity. 'Each mineral fraction must be between zero and one, not negative or greater than one,' I said in a murmur on my way out.
Back to office, I was able to duplicate the unrealistic fractions the intern had obtained. I was then hooked, and could not shake the problem off. There had to be a solution, I insisted. It helped that I had some statistical background from my MASc at UW. So the inertia to get started working on the problem was not insurmountable. I developed a new method, and validated it with a real rock sample of known mineral fractions. Dr L joined forces, bringing in his clout and credibility. He wrote the software, and played a key role in its implementation. The new method withstood the scrutiny by the resident expert, Dr W, and has been in use by Company X since 1992. Dr L, upon his retirement, secured a full-time consulting job (for at least 10 years) with Company BH, Houston, where he successfully applied the same methodology I had developed to determine mineral fractions below ground, while drilling a well.
Fortunately, results-focussed Company X management did not hold my audacious response in the meeting against me. In the yearly appraisal process, I was recognized duly. I also delivered in my assigned project, a paper from which won the JCPT best technical paper award in 1994. That initiative in Company X, its relentless pursuit, and implementation encouraged me, ever since, to think laterally for a new solution to a technical problem. My assertive answer in the meeting also sent signals to others that I was not to be taken advantage of. I was transformed.
I was also transformed in pursuit of my personal well-being. The inspiration for that was from two marathon runners in the Company X group I was in, one of whom was Dr L himself. I started running around in my neighbourhood called Reflections at night (Houston was too hot and humid for me to run during day time) for 20-30 minutes for stress reduction and idea generation, fearful of gun-toting Houstonians taking me for a bad person.
After returning to Calgary, I joined Company A's fitness centre. There, our teams won the 12 weeks of fitness challenge, three years in a row. As a member of the winning team in the first year, I was given a plaque that reads: "If change be not from outward circumstances, it must be from within." (Jane Austen)
Soon another transformation was brewing inside. One day in December 1999, at age 50,I decided to do something thitherto unthinkable. I registered for the Vancouver Marathon, my first attempt at running 42.2 km. I told everybody I knew, so that I would not back away from my commitment. 'No kidding! You come here to read magazines. You will run a marathon!' said Company A's fitness adviser, with disbelief and doubt expressed in her voice, and written all over her face.
I started the Vancouver race on 7 May, 2000, not knowing what was in store. I felt good for the first 32 km, my longest training run. After another 5 km or so, my muscles tightened up. Brain started shaking. Mind began pleading to stop. Fellow runners were collapsing left and right on the Burrard Street Bridge to the finish line. I finished. I got the medal. But I could not walk straight. I had to walk sideways in Vancouver and Calgary airports. The morning after, I could not get down from bed. My knees did not bend. I struggled to get into and out of the car to go to office. There, the fitness centre greeted me with smiles and praises, expressed in her face and voice. Colleagues were congratulating personally or through emails. The pain was still there, but did not feel as painful.
On 24 November, 2015, I celebrated 35 years of employment with Company X and its affiliate Company A.A roller-coaster career that survived waves of staff reduction, at as low as $12/bbl oil price, in the mid-eighties to mid-nineties, receiving: two Most Significant Innovation Awards; 45+ US and Canadian patents; a JCPT best technical paper; and a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Association of BUET Alumni on 31 January, 2015, for professional achievements and being the first of Bangladeshi origin to have completed full marathons in all seven continents. Moreover, I was profiled in the award-winning Company A magazine in an article 'Artists of Inventions'; and in the largest circulation Bangladesh daily Prothom Alo in an article 'Bangladesher Bismoy (Wonder of Bangladesh)'.
I owe my creative bent and endurance to genetic inheritances, especially from my mother. She had the capacity to endure enormous hardships. I saw her going without food and water for 30 hours or so at a stretch, while cooking and doing other household activities for a religious or a social function. Self-educated at home after marriage, she flourished in many creative pursuits: painting, knitting, embroidery, quilt making, and cooking. Unfortunately, mother and I did not have much monetary inheritance from father. After his death when I was 11, we struggled financially. But mother still had the heart and hands for sharing whatever little she had with our poor neighbours and relatives. "God looks after those who care for the needy," she used to say.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel was a marathon I ran in 2011 --- the year I finished five marathons in six months, becoming a member of the Marathon Maniacs Club --- in North Bend, 50 miles east of Seattle, WA, USA. The 2.3-mile tunnel through a mountain, on that 26.2-mile course, was pitch-black, requiring me to wear a head lamp. Water droplets were seeping through the roof and striking the top of my capped head, sporadically. Amidst darkness, I could see straight ahead a white light, circular in shape, which was getting closer with each stride. Sounds of feet, rhythmically striking the damp floor--- occasionally interjected with splashing sounds from the water puddles --- reverberated in the 24-feet diameter cylindrical enclosure. The fear of stepping on a snake on the floor or of the roof collapsing from above took engulfed me. But the light at the end served as the beacon of hope. I persevered. Soon I was outside amidst light, with cameras pointing at me and others. I saw leaves of trees dancing in a light breeze, refreshments spread on tables, and a bag to drop off my headlamps and shed off my warm clothes. But there were many more miles to run on a hiking trail, before I could take a warm, soothing shower in my hotel room.
That marathon is a great metaphor of my life's tortuous and bumpy journey. In that long journey, I came to realize that one does not have to be an Abibi Bikila (who won the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon gold medal, running barefooted) to run a marathon; a Steve Jobs to make a significant innovation; or a Mother Theresa to offer others a helping hand. Those are exceptional people in possession of exceptional lung, brain, or heart capacity. For the less gifted and talented among us, we can be stronger --- physically and mentally --- and kinder, if we have the will to change and apply.
A sickly kid of unremarkable built --- from Matlab (born at and educated up to high school) and Bishnupur (ancestral home) villages in Bangladesh --- overcame many hurdles to accomplish some audacious goals, including running four marathons in six months in 2014 alone, two of which were adventure marathons. Feeling progressively drained and out-of-breath with each run in 2014, I persisted and achieved my goal of finishing marathons in all seven continents. Had I known what I knew later that my heart was not getting enough oxygen-carrying blood during those four gruelling runs, I might have paused. But I would not have stopped completely.
An emaciated, diminutive figure --- so scantily dressed in Indian farmers' garbs, some British journalists and politicians referred to him as a fakir (a beggar) --- had rattled the mighty British Empire in the nineteen-thirties and -forties, ultimately shattering the shackles of its colonization of India. Great-soul Gandhi once proclaimed: "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will."r (The End)
Tapan Chakrabarty, a seven-continent marathon finisher, an inventor and an innovator, writes from Calgary, Canada







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