Even today, I am filled with nostalgia when I think of our home in Harpalpur, the house that I was born in and I am told the Maharaja of the region had gifted to my great grandfather, fondly known as Malik saheb. In that small village in Madhya Pradesh, everybody knew each other. Malik saheb was an honourable man. He cared for the villagers , and so was referred to as grandfather (I called him Bapuji). Malik saheb didn’t cheat the buyers nor did he squeeze the sellers, even though he was a trader; it’s not surprising he earned respect that outlived him. I stayed with Bapuji in Harpalpur until I was seven-years-old. My younger brother, Suresh replaced me in Harpalpur when I went to live with my father (Papa) and mother in the big city. My parents didn’t have the resources but somehow they managed to get almost everything we wanted. All my growing years, there used to be this disquiet during the last few days of the month, which, I realised only later, was because my parents had run out of money. But we never felt like we missed out on anything and that humble beginning set the foundation of our values and our life.
Fortunately for my parents, all of us turned out to be studious without anyone prodding us, although Papa and Ma did push us subtly. All of us brothers went to a relatively unknown school, Shree Jain Vidyalay in Calcutta, and stood first in class every single year. It was a year of sadness in our home when in grade seven, I came second in the class. We all got tuition waivers all through. Some of those lessons are still fresh in my memory. Once Ojha sir slapped me and I didn’t speak with him for two weeks — he was a great maths teacher and I knew I was his favourite student but he had been unfair that day, I felt. No one in class could answer his question; he didn’t say a word to the others, but he slapped me. Two weeks later, I asked him why he picked on me and he said, “I didn’t expect them to know, but I expected you to have the answer.” That day I learnt there is no point comparing yourself with anyone because everyone has a certain threshold and you are only expected to perform to your potential.
My life was shaped by a series of uncanny coincidences. I landed in IIT not by design but because I goofed up on the entrance exam dates for Bengal Engineering College, which we preferred over IIT since it was closer to home. My rank was exactly 900, which was the last rank qualifying for mechanical engineering in IIT Kanpur and I still remember the coordinator did not want to give me that seat wanting to wait for a “smarter” candidate. Things seemed to be conspiring against me — I didn’t clear the medical test. I weighed 33 kg against a minimum requirement of 41 kg and my chest was 22 inches wide as against the required 24 inches. I was also terribly nervous during the interview, which gave the medical examiner one more reason to reject me — my heartbeat was too fast. I was told to get a medical certificate from a doctor at a government hospital, stating that I had no heart problem. We managed to get the certificate with our family doctor’s help and finally, I was through.
Day one in IIT was an unforgettable one. A senior asked me, “When did you get here?” and my reply, “I came tomorrow” made them roar with laughter, setting my stomach churning. I knew no better — in Hindi, kal means yesterday as well as tomorrow. Having studied in Hindi medium institutes all my life, the IIT entrance was the first exam I ever wrote in English. Even in that, I could not have cracked the paper had I not accidently sneaked a peek at the diagram made by the guy sitting diagonally opposite me during the Physics paper — I struggled just to understand the questions through most of the paper.
The first few days were a nightmare. I could not comprehend a word of what was going on in class. On the first day, I found myself in this large hall, L7, where an American professor, Dr Devenport, was delivering a lecture on Chemistry, not my favourite subject anyway. Obviously, I did not follow a single word he said. An Indian professor teaching Maths in English was still bearable, on the other hand, an American accent? No way. I desperately wanted to go back home. But I told myself every moment that I had to do this, that going back home was not an option.
It wasn’t an easy transition at all — you came with all kinds of notions about yourself being a topper and there everyone around you was a topper. The counsellor had reminded us that we were all top rankers but going forward we would all have a lot more to prove; she warned us not to get intimidated or demotivated. That talk did help bring everyone to ground level but I had a double whammy because of my language issue. The English teacher, Mrs Tharu, was helpful — she created quite a stir the day she supposedly brought an issue of Playboy to class, just for the heck of it. I was not in that class.
By some miracle, I cleared the first semester with a GPA of 8.6. Thereafter, between the mess committee, cultural committee and election campaigns, I still managed to improve my grades every semester. Of course, it helped to have influential friends. I remember the Sri Lankan student who somehow managed to get hold of the question paper of TA102 the night before the exam but was so unprepared, he had no option but to share it with us. Ironically, he still scored a D while I ended up with an A grade — there are no short cuts!
In my final year I got hooked on to the card game, bridge. Half my waking hours in the final year were spent playing bridge. I realised only much later how much the game had sharpened my thinking and memorising abilities, and so effortlessly.
At graduation, Telco rejected me in the interview because I had a high CGPA. They categorically said, we had to call you for the interview because you had high grades but we need to reject you for the same reason because, in our experience, such candidates do not join us — they fly away for further studies to the US. He was right.
Cornell came through after a strange turn of circumstances. But for the postal delay, I wonder where I would have been! A month after my pre-application I had not received any response from Cornell, so I sent in a second pre-application. Replies to both came in days later — the response to the first one was a rejection; the second said, come, apply! Life was truly being dictated by randomness.
Papa could not afford to pay for even my flight tickets, but he got a charitable trust to fund it. His employer, Mr Kanoi, gave me his old suit, saying I could alter it and wear it. I never wore that suit, but it remained with me the entire time I lived in the US, to remind me of my humble beginning.
I landed in the US with only a six-page bulletin on the university. I knew nothing else. My first shock was at the bus station in New York City, when I tried to get a ticket to Ithaca, where Cornell is. I asked for a ticket to “EETHAAKA” in a very heavy Indian accent and the man simply shrugged his shoulders. “Sorry; no such place.” He saw I was anxious and asked me to write it down and then, of course… “Oh! Ithaca, New York, you mean?” My second heart attack was on reaching Ithaca. I stepped out from the cab I had hailed at the bus stop and the cabbie said, “That will be dollar 40, sir.” I wondered, $40 for such a short distance? I don’t think I had even $14 in my pocket then. I said, “Sorry, I don’t have it.” He freaked out. “You mean you don’t have $1 and 40 cents?” I hurriedly pulled out my wallet, counted the cents carefully and handed him the dollar and 40 cents.
110, Cook Street, Ithaca, New York, was lovely. Ram, Pravin, Aspi and I cooked the best meals. Being budding engineers, we believed in assembly line production — my job was to make chapatis. We were there for two years. Oh, how frugally we lived! We shared rooms; cooked every day, washed utensils and clothes by hand, even cut each other's hair, but it was all great fun. The dorm I moved to, the Cascadilla Hall thereafter was great fun too. I made several non-Indian friends, Alan, Phil, Bret, Jo Ellen, Amy, Harsha.
Getting used to complete strangers and a different culture wasn’t easy at all. How hesitant I was to pick up stuff at the supermarket in the initial days! Always afraid someone would chide me for doing so. And who knew what a downtown was? Our college was on a hill and downtown was literally downtown. I was so naïve, I thought downtown was called so because it was down the hill; it was only after visiting a few places that I realised that downtown had nothing to do with downhill or uphill.
Language continued to be my pain point — no one could understand me in the US. My poor TOEFL score turned out to be a blessing in disguise; rather than a teaching assistantship, I landed a research assistantship — I was thrilled! I will be eternally thankful to professor Jack Booker. He understood that I faced problems because of both — my language and my background. He generously helped me to settle down at Cornell and learn the American way of life. He was a great mechanical engineering professor, and I was lucky to have him as my thesis advisor and a guide all throughout my stint on campus. Later after my Masters, when I secured admission at Stanford’s PhD programme, professor Booker dissuaded me from taking it up — at Cornell, I needed to put in just one more year to get the PhD; Stanford would have put me through the grind for another four years. That gave me a clear three-year lead over my peers.
There were so many things I learnt. In one of the tests, I answered the asked question correctly, but went beyond and got that part wrong. The professor didn’t even give me marks for answering correctly the question that was asked. I was upset and asked him, “Why did you deduct my marks; this was not even a part of the question?” He said, “It shows that you don’t know a certain concept that you are supposed to know.” That was an important lesson — stick to the brief and deliver on it, rather than going beyond and messing it up. However, later on, I realised that simply sticking to the brief is not what leaders do.
I also learnt about true frugality. From the $120 I got as stipend every month, I paid my rent and food expenses, bought a stereo and a camera, made a trip to India, and even managed to buy a red Mustang!
Cornell really transformed my life forever. I had come a long way from Harpalpur. My language skills improved and I tried my hand at everything that came my way — bridge, of course, and then table tennis, ballroom and square dancing, swimming, skiing, etc. I never became good at any of these but that didn’t stop me from signing up for new stuff; I used to be up till 4 am most days. I don’t know how, but amid all those distractions, I managed to get good grades.
The job at General Motors (GM) was sheer happenstance. I had been rejected by GM already and was about to take up an AT&T offer or a teaching assignment at Pennsylvania State University. Then I got the call from GM asking if I was still interested. I readily agreed. Apparently, the department head changed and when Mr Neil Schilke saw my application, he told the HR person he wanted to hire me. They pointed out that I didn’t have an H-1 visa to which Neil replied, “My job is to get the right guy. Your job is to get him the visa.”
Neil taught me a crucial lesson that has stayed with me. I was late by a minute for one of our first meetings. He just looked at his watch and calmly told me to attend the meeting next time as this one had already started. I froze, didn’t know what to do. That was a hard lesson learnt on punctuality. I never dared turn up late for any meeting after that, except for one, a long time later. Call it Murphy’s Law or whatever, that meeting was with Anand Mahindra, just a few days after I joined Mahindra. But my reception this time was in sharp contrast. Anand Mahindra welcomed me, asked me to sit down and briefed me on what had been discussed before I came, so I was up to speed and could join in the discussion. That’s part of what makes Anand so respected. He’s inclusive, gives you a lot of respect, never puts you in a spot and never threatens you with anything. He makes you feel comfortable.
Back at GM, my language woes continued. As luck would have it , GM had great diversity, with an equal number of Chinese, Indian and American employees. Thankfully, there were many others, especially Chinese, who were not great in English and GM organised a 14-week one-on-one tutoring in both written and spoken English, and that helped me so much. Those English tuitions were a real saviour in my career, without which my growth may have been stunted.
The huge research labs and college kind of work style with no one breathing down your neck for any tangible output made GM Research Lab (GMR) a paradise for us researchers. GMR used to be seen by operating divisions as a white elephant but we thought GMR contributed a lot to GM — the number one auto company in the world.
For me, those 14 years at GM were wonderful, both work wise and on the home front. The freedom, the satisfaction of building FLARE — a software solution for friction and lubrication design of automobile engines. FLARE put to good use my skill set in mechanical engineering and my love for programming. I was known as the father of FLARE. In all those 14 years I don’t recall taking any business calls at home, never worked on weekends, and could leave for home sharp at 6 pm (After all, I was the hard working type.) Mamta (my wife) and I had a ball and of course, when Pooja and Puneet came along, we had all the free time to enjoy with them. Financially, too, it was great — my first salary at GM, back in 1979, was $27,000. By the time I quit, it was over $100,000, with four promotions along the way — that was quite an achievement even by US standards.