10 teachers of my life – Dipankar Khasnabish, PGP 1996

As I had my recent birthday, I mapped myself against the average life expectancy of an Indian male. I found I am at the 80th percentile.

We all live our lives as if we are immortal. A couple of years back, I underwent an exercise of picking our year of death and converting that into days left.

Well for most of us (we were middle-aged folks), the number came a very finite one. For example, if I repeat the exercise today, and assume the average life expectancy a benchmark, it is some 5,000 odd days. And subtract one-third of that for sleep. And it is a powerful reminder to focus, in case we have some dreams.

Life is an interesting journey. When we are very young, we enjoy it because everything is provided for. Then we dream, and almost all feel that they will change the world. Then the middle age is where we understand limitations and build boundaries. Some start thinking of the legacy – beyond the progeny and material assets. And for those, many times it is like starting on a blank slate.

The desire to be remembered is universal, but most of us do not have the patience or sagacity to work on it. Sometime during college days, we were asked to write a fictitious obituary for the next day’s paper, and for all, it was blank (it will be black for me today too – and I will not be an exception).

What is a legacy? Is it just a happy life? And if that be the case, is this happiness of the self only? Or the people around you?

I am not sure but have been witness to quite a few bereavements, these are the three things I think is what makes one successful:

– Are you going without the regret of something unfinished?

– Were you loved by people you love while you are alive?

– Are you going to be missed?

– Or we go back to the old age – If you people laughed when you were born and you cried, and you laughed while going when people cried, you lived a full life.

What is that I believe is the secret sauce? I have tried three approaches, and more or less I feel I have succeeded in my mental equipoise (as of now, the future is always unknown).

– To believe there is a little bit of bad in the best, and there is a little of good in the worst

– Minimize the regret of the past (by facing them), and anxiety of the future (by working on this)

– Keep learning

These, however, I believe, are also the tools we need where data, information, and even knowledge are available. And the challenge is more in connecting the dots to solve the right brain problem where tools and kits are available on a tap.

Where does one learn? I found learning is always around us, provided we are looking for it. “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives”. Today I will talk about ten life events that left an impression on me, and helped me change:

1. Travel

All three occasions – local, domestic, and international are memorable and temporal.

We grew up in Durgapur. It was a steel township; the life was quite routine. Going to school by the school bus and hanging out near home with friends.

But we had quite a few errands to do – getting the ration, kerosene, and coal (we used to get the best quality once used in coke oven plant). And by age 11 some of these came to me. The first venture to the location (I think it was the ration office), standing in the queue, paying the amount, collecting the ration, bringing them back, and giving back the balance with the receipt was the first commercial transaction I did.

This domestic one was from Kharagpur to Kolkata. I did get dropped at IIT by my father, but the first week was a very hard time given that ragging was quite prevalent then.

So, when the first weekend came, and I found folks leaving for Kolkata I joined. And the someway landed up at our ancestral home in the outskirts of Kolkata. I only had a vague idea where it was and managed to reach by asking scores of people. It was a sense of relief (from two days of torment at college), as well as a sense of achievement.

And something similar happened when I travelled abroad first. It was Japan and language was a major issue. But I could manage largely by looking at the colour codes, symbols, common sense, reading instructions in less than perfect English, and abundant support from the locals. And this gave me the confidence and belief that people everywhere are keen to help, provided one is ready to seek.

2. Hostel life

This was something I was thrown in when I joined IIT. I had no expectations, no concerns. But it impacted me in many ways. But I have two key takeaways which possibly on hostel can give – engage with friends on which one may vehemently disagree but remain friends and finding real brilliant people.

The second one is something that fundamentally changed my view in many ways. Well, we have many smart and intelligent people around us, but for sure we have only a handful of brilliant ones. They are exceptions of nature, maybe a different brain structure. We need to meet them to believe – and I have so far not met any beyond my IIT days (well that excludes some of the super-rich individuals too who I have seen from very close quarters).

But brilliance can cut both ways, and society has a responsibility in handling them. As they can quickly get frustrated with others whose CPUs are much slower and can withdraw (I have seen quite a few). Many of them are clumsy, and do not appear talented (which normally is super-refined with practice – brilliant people hate to do that).

On the other hand, some assume they are brilliant (but they are not) and spend most of their adult life claiming to be one. And being a nuisance in the process.

3. Job

Job is the place where we spend most of us awaken time (and if we include the travel, it only adds up). But jobs, especially large corporates (where I spent the most time) are low on any learning. This is because large successful organizations work on alignment, and execution is much more important than thinking (except at the transaction level).

Jobs however teach one management in multiple dimensions, especially the ability to align with a large group of people who are not friends, who are at multiple levels of seniority, sense of entitlements, and ego (mostly vacuous though).

I am lucky to see some very successful first-generation entrepreneurs and some great bosses. Well rank and money and visible signs of success aside, I found respect is something sought but short supply incorporates. The entire model is developed around calling others incapable to show someone as the saviour, and that I suppose is most cases responsible for organizations to slow down as they grow big.

But exceptions are there, and real respect (beyond the trappings like birthdays, etc.) is reserved for the ones who walk the talk and show courage under fire. That is the only way. And I am lucky to know a few – who ticks both competence and integrity at the same time.

4. Driving

It’s liberating, and the responsibility of handling a machine that can potentially kill someone in case of a mistake. We don’t always appreciate it, but cars multiply our power by hundreds of times, and in a way make it much much more careful.

5. Marriage

Marriage is probably the most discussed institution. It travelled a long way from being a companion to an institution to a tradition to as many are asking – is it even needed.

But marriage is the first institution where we start living in the same house, 24X7 (well may not always physically – but emotionally for sure), a person who we meet when we are adults, when our thoughts and ideas are largely formed, and where either person is not obligated to other for anything in the past.

This in a way is very tenuous, where the only glue is trust, and the only way forward is finding a middle ground – in multiple dimensions. Marriage in a way makes one anchor from multiple perspectives and teaches us to accept stuff which we neither created nor control – including the in-laws (who unlike our family do not love us unconditionally).

Did we have challenges? Of course, yes. Did they become ugly? Not so far, and hopefully will not be.

Some key things which I learned works are these – two adults will disagree and the only way to handle it is to have a silence zone.

In-laws and parents should only be a support system, but better to avoid either as agony aunt (or uncle), or a punching bag.

The financial outlook for at least the next 12 months should be robust, and children’s education and health emergencies need to be covered as a must.

Being for the person is more important than being with the person – and a grip of the updates of all members up to the first degree of separation helps build social security which is invaluable, especially in a country like India where institutions are very weak.

6. Children

They are our reflections. This is someone we decide to bring in. The first three years are essentially a fight for existence – the human kids are so different. And as a father, I built an umbilical cord of the provider which will stay through life.

My kid is someone who I can be angry with but need to come around as in a way she is my reflection. They observe the parents and build their values, not any other way. And one thing they look for is consistency – among our personal, social and professional life. A tight rope walks, but high on taming the impulses and owning up ourselves.

Khalil Gibran says your children are not your children.

I am no Gibran, but I know that they will go away to tread their path and will build their identity.

I tried my best not to impose my likes or thoughts or beliefs on my daughter. From the time she had been speaking coherently, I tried to discuss rather than instruct her.

This has helped me not to build any particular expectation (except the hope that she will be a good human being), and so far, helped in not being tormented by frustration on the path she is choosing.

7. Pet (dog)

The pet in our home happened more because our daughter wanted one when she turned 11. There was a strike at home as she started skipping meals around her birthday. And we moved helter-skelter to bring in Holly – an indie girl rescued from the street.

I as usual did not have much expectation, but as they say – grumpy fathers who do not want a dog to become the best friends. Well, I hope the first part is not correct, but she has now become the lifeline of all of us.

The sciences symbiotic relationships between species in multiple categories – commensalism (one benefits, and the other is unaffected); mutualism (both benefit); amensalism (at least one species is harmful); and parasitism (one benefits at the expense of the other). But a pet (and a Holly in this case) does not fall in any category. This one can’t do a thing on its own, whose susu and potty I have to clean, who sleeps most of the time, but still elicits love without even talking (and in our case, cozying up).

It is a small life they have – the toddler too young to adult to old, the whole cycle plays out in front of our eyes. And there is not a single occasion when they are not interested in you, the tail will always wag – rain or shine. Teaches a lot on interpersonal relationships – especially on how to connect at a deeper level.

8. Social work and activism

I got involved with the housing society and then got hooked. Over years I have engaged in community projects, managing conflicts, awareness campaigns, medical and environment camps, engaging with elected representatives and bureaucrats.

Many have deep concerns about this space, primarily from two contexts – we feel we will be abused, and we feel politicians are dirty to deal with.

Both are partially true, but these are offset with huge gains. The ability to handle large budgets (our society spends around 8 crores a year), solving complex issues involving laws, police, courts, etc., providing solutions without all data and understanding, and most important – lead by capability alone (as there is neither money of hierarchy to ensure compliance).

And most important, I got a deep understanding of politicians and government servants – their hard work, courage, never say die attitude, cunning, and impact. I have a deep respect for all of them, despite all their flaws, and have the appreciation that an elected representative or bureaucrats can achieve in a day what we can’t even dream of in a lifetime of social media activism.

The takeaway from the social sectors is important – that one 1who question much do not help, that only thing that helps are money, time, and name lend (if one is big), but suggestions excuse.

That whatever idea you have, you need to demonstrate that it works. Volunteerism is not voluntary. And to top all, there are thousands, maybe millions, who are helping in whatever way they can. They can be a family member, a friend, a neighbor – we will not know till we meet on a purpose.

9. Staying with and caring for the old

In 2019 I moved to Kolkata for work and stayed with my parents (except few travels backs to Bangalore) constantly for a year. And that happened after 33 years (except in 1999 when too I spent a year with them).

The experience is life-changing in many ways. I did have a closure with my father, about whom I had lots of angst (well I did not find them wrong, but I could reconcile). I could see how my mother, who was once breathtakingly beautiful, and a commensurate communicator aged – both physically and mentally.

But what fascinating is how people when old (they are both around 80) become children once again. How some good biscuits, a small discussion, a get-together of family members can make them happy? There is no desire to travel big, or go to a big house, or have a big car. It is just a yearning to be around people who care, talk, and peacefully move towards the inevitable.

This touched me in many ways. Possibly the genesis of this post, at least the finite nature of our lives (where we all feel a little uncomfortable about) comes from there.

10. Long discussions with my daughter

These are new but profound.

This is not to impose but learn. Freewheeling topics give me a sense of what she is thinking, and possibly a proxy for what people of her age group is thinking.

What I found is whatever changes, the principle remains the same. And society becomes better or worse not by discovering or redefining them, but by following them.

And if the glimpses are any indication, the future is in safer hands.

These are my 10. The only possible miss is a long stint in a very disciplined environment. Maybe a Short Service Commission in the army – and that seems too late now.

What are yours?

This article is a contribution by Dipankar Khasnabish (PGP 1996), Director – Heeya and Trustee – Heartcrafted Foundation