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Inside The Outsider-15th Convocation Speech At Sikkim Manipal University, Gangtok

Inside The Outsider-15th Convocation Speech At Sikkim Manipal University, Gangtok

Your Excellency, Governor of Sikkim and Chancellor of Sikkim Manipal University, Shri Shriniwas Dadasaheb Patil, Vice Chancellor Brigadier Dr. Somnath Mishra, Members of the Governing Council, esteemed teachers, parents, assembled guests and most importantly, my dear graduating students.

It is a great honor to be with you today, to be a part of your glory, to witness your palpable sense of achievement. You have made it! May this sense of achievement power your every step as you journey through the world.

On this momentous occasion, I would like to talk to you about a subject that has been very important to me, and which I think is deeply relevant to you as well. That subject is identity.

My grandfather, who lived when the British ruled India, was from Bengal. Bengali he was, but he lived, worked as a doctor, and died in Bihar. My father, in his turn, migrated to what is now Odisha. That is where I was born and spent my childhood and my days as a young adult. When I was a small child, I started absorbing the idea of multiple identities. My mother tongue is Bengali; we spoke Bengali at home; that is the language I was first taught to read and write. Soon after, my father taught me English. Then he taught me Odia, the language of the land I was born in. When I was 5, I was taught Hindi as well because, my father said, Hindi was the national language.

Children can learn new languages very quickly and that is what happened to me. I learnt all 4 languages with ease and enthusiasm. In all this, two primary languages for most, everyday interactions emerged: Bengali at home and Odia outside. Through language, I simultaneously had two different identities – that of a Bengali and that of an Odia.

This was neither troublesome nor even remark-worthy until I turned 8. Till then, I had been homeschooled. At 8, I was admitted to a school. And, because of my father’s transferable government job, our family changed towns 5 times in the next 6 years. And that meant that I changed schools 5 times in 6 years. In each school, my new classmates would try to make sense of me, try to understand my identity.

What was a Bagchi, they would ask me in every new school on the first day of my arrival. It is a Bengali surname, I would explain. That statement of origin didn’t create animosity, though it did elicit the occasional taunt. More difficult were questions like, is it true that Bengalis dried and powdered fish scales and then they ate it all yearlong? I used to feel embarrassed and a little helpless answering such questions because it didn’t matter how I responded. They had already formed their ideas.

The one question that caused me great consternation had to do with religion. I come from a very liberal family that is Hindu but which places  all  religions  at  par.  After the quizzing on the family name, the invariable question asked was, what was my religion? I would say, we are Hindu, but that drew incredulity. How, my friends asked me, how could a Bengali be Hindu? It was a strange situation for me. I was born in Odisha but anomalous because of my strange Bengali name, and because I was a Bengali, I probably ate strange stuff and in all this, for whatever reason, I couldn’t possibly be a Hindu. The message was clear to me: I wasn’t one of them. And each time we moved from one town to another, I felt excluded all over again.

This became a formative experience for me. Our identity is an interesting concept; it is as much a sense of who you are as it is who you are not. At once you become an insider to some and an outsider to others. No one feels this more keenly than a new child at school. That new child must always start as an outsider.

My being an outsider started with my family name. But I wasn’t the only one being singled out. Consider my friend Durga, the math wizard in our class. He was born in Odisha and had an obviously Odia name, so no one asked him questions about fish scales. But he had a  speech condition: he stammered. The other kids called him “Khanaa,” meaning the one who stammered, and they mimicked him. Children can be cruel, even without intentional malice. My classmates could have focused on Durga’s brilliance; instead they focused on his disability. But what they gave Durga was a label, not an identity. Today, Durga is an accomplished steel plant engineer. He has carved out his own identity.

As for me, through the embarrassing and irritating experiences of having to explain my origin each time I changed schools, to be accepted, to be included, I learnt a secret. My best bet to get past anyone’s effort  to  exclude me, was to quickly look around, see what was going on, and to try my hands at as many things as I could. If there was an activity, I was in it. If there was a competition, I was in it. I was there at the carpentry class, the sewing (yes, sewing) class. Gymnastics. Football. Theatre. Singing. Track events. Football. Debating. Essay-writing competitions.

In most of them, I was no good. But that didn’t matter. Suddenly, I was making friends who cared about a shared interest. It was then that I realized that when you make an effort and you try your hand out at new things, you build a new set of friends. Their friendship is not for parochial reasons. Their friendship is based on common desires, choices and accomplishments. This kind of friendship stays longer.

Years later, in college, a high point of my personal achievement came in 1975 when I went to Delhi to represent my state in the Republic Day Parade as part of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). There, I was adjudged the best cadet and the award came with an invitation to breakfast with the Indian Prime Minister, a custom since the time of Jawaharlal Nehru. In 1975, Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister and there I was, at home with her, with a handful of other invitees. At the breakfast table, someone asked me, where was I from?

For a split second, I froze, baffled. My multiple identities came flooding through  my mind and I blurted out, “I am a Bengali from Bihar in Odisha. I am an Indian.” The table broke into appreciative laughter. In that moment I realized the power of multiple identities. I didn’t have to be just this or exclusively that!

As we grow up and step in to the professional world, language recedes in importance when it comes to what determines our inclusion or exclusion. It is replaced by the body of knowledge that we may be associated with. I was a student of humanities; I had graduated with honors in Political Science. My ambition was to build on that platform to be a scholar someday. That wish didn’t come true. I dropped out of the post-graduate course at the University. I found work as a clerk in a government office. There, I was surrounded by people twice my age, doing things I had no clue about. Most people there thought that I was a transient, someone more ‘out’ than ‘in,’ and that was indeed true. People do not bother with those who will soon go away. That was the case with me.

Eventually, I found a job as a management trainee at DCM and, with that, my real professional career started. Thanks to DCM, I landed in Delhi and worked for 5 years in a textile factory. It was a coveted job. In that batch of management trainees, I was 1 of only 2 who didn’t come with a professional qualification like engineer, MBA or chartered accountant. On top of that, I came from a lower-middle class background, while the rest of the batch all came from affluent families.

Being different from  my  peers  in  these  two  matters  could have made matters difficult for me. But, at this juncture, I was rescued by the investment that my father had made when I was a 5-year-old, of teaching me Hindi at home. I fluently spoke the language of the peon, the clerk, the truck driver and the mill hand. I could communicate with and connect with the people who formed the beating heart of that textile factory. So, even though I was an outsider in terms of education and social status, I had found my place.

Until I lost it. This time, it was because of someone else’s identity! My boss was a Punjabi Khatri. My boss’s boss was a UP Brahmin who hated Punjabis. He eventually got rid of my boss. I was next in his line of fire because I  had been my boss’s protege. But before I got fired, I escaped.

After desperately trying to land a job here and there, I found myself a job: that of a salesman in a computer company. The Indian IT industry was nascent, and attitude mattered more  than  qualifications  or experience.

But, having landed the job, once again I found myself to be an outsider. I didn’t know anything about computers. I needed to start all over again. I had to learn the basics of computer science and then, the basics of selling. My experience at DCM was in the administration function of the company; I had no knowledge of the art and the science of selling.

I realized that the only way for me to find  my  way through in this new world, was going to be through a phase of apprenticeship. So, I sought out two sets of people: the R&D engineers, a geeky, nerdy bunch of people, a kind I had never met before, and, separately, the folks who knew the art, science and witchcraft of selling. The R&D people were like secretive druids with great knowledge of alchemy. The sales people were performing magicians. I knew neither trade, so I reached out to them. I offered them my  services.  I  spent  time  with them, I was always there to admire their work, I humored them, I ran errands for them, I sat at their feet as they savored their many moments of achievement and glory. In turn, they stayed back  after  work  to  teach me how hardware and software worked, how computers talked to each other and how applications were built. The sales wizards took me along to their calls and taught me their secrets.

Eventually, the day came when I forgot, and they forgot, that I wasn’t from their world.

Over the ensuing years, I learnt enough to build a sustained career in the Information Technology (IT) industry; I did many things in this new world of mine that started shaping a new identity for me. One day, I became the chief executive of Wipro’s Global R&D division, which was one of India’s most admired private sector computer labs. This simply wouldn’t have happened without the generosity of those druids and magicians who had taken me under their wings as their apprentice.

Apprenticeship is a wonderful way of breaking into any place you go to. The starting point of apprenticeship is not in showing off how much you know; it is in admitting how little you know.

After joining Wipro’s R&D, I began traveling internationally. In the early part of the 1990s, whenever I travelled to overseas to countries like the US, I was subjected to more questions and longer wait times in the immigration queues at airports because I was Indian, and “different.”

But once I cleared immigration, and was inside the country, in the city, at the town square, I would see that I wasn’t the only outsider in a new land. In there, or out there, if you looked intently enough and listened well, there it was: everyone, everywhere, was both an outsider and an insider. That realization was a huge one for me. It is a very reassuring feeling that nowhere are you the only one!

In the so-called melting pot of the United States of America, there are the blacks, whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asians; there are the suburban folks, the rural folks and the inner city folks. In London, the man who lives on Kensington High Street feels like an outsider to someone in South Hall and both of them look rank outsiders just fifty miles beyond Lancaster into rural England. In the Netherlands, a country with a length of just 1027 kilometers, there is a north-south divide: people at each end think that  they  are  very  different  from each other. They are not them.

The story is the same in every country. A social security number, a driver’s license or even a passport is not all that it takes to guarantee that you won’t be an alien in your own land. There are the perceived and the real differences; there  are  tensions  and  frictions  wherever you go. There is so much of it everywhere that I believe that we are a world united by our  differences.  In  it,  no one can be a true insider – and, by that same argument,   no one can be entirely an outsider.

But everywhere we go, at the point of starting, there will always be someone who will find something about you that is different. Such people might simply ignore you. Sometimes they might bully you and, worse, sometimes actively discriminate against you. But in this very same world, there are also people who will tell you how their story has many similarities with yours and in that same world, you will also find people who think you are interesting, sometimes even fabulous because you are different. Don’t be surprised, you may find an advantage that you didn’t even know existed.

Every one of us, wherever we go, in whatever we do, like to feel included; we like to know that we are among people who want us;  we  like  to  see  “welcome”  written on every doormat. Yet life is not what and how we want it to be. Sometimes, it is life’s design to block our path, to test our true mettle, to sharpen our conviction. In all of this, the first thing life does is to question  your  own view on the idea of identity.

In large measure, our identity is rooted in things past. Sometimes, it is an inheritance, sometimes it is shaped by acts and deeds. That identity, when held on to, when protected under threat, may reveal little of what may be our true potential and far less, the true entitlement and the purpose for which we may have come.

Imagine this: (Language = Gujarati) + (Caste = Bania) + (Profession = lawyer). That math of identity does not reveal a Mahatma. But that identity, under threat, shed like a used garment, replaced with a new identity,  that of a crusader against apartheid, took someone to an altogether new orbit.

We must keep in mind a simple precept: clinging to an identity can keep us from a higher order and might thrust baggage upon us that will only pull us down.

It pays to travel light in to the future.

In closing, on this special day, as you walk into the next chapter of your lives, I hope you will keep this in your hearts: When the doormat says you are not welcome, know that it is just a doormat, not the door.

When beyond the door someone says you are an outsider, remember that the individual, like you and like everyone else, is also an outsider somewhere.

Before life questions your identity, you must examine it yourself and learn which aspects to hold on to and which ones to let go.

Between sticking to an identity and building a reputation, choose to build your reputation. Between guarding your identity and guarding your reputation, guard your reputation.

And finally, dear friends, keep in mind this one thing: there is no identity worth clinging to that is rooted in language, caste, gender, profession, religion and even nationality. The only identity worth holding onto, at any cost, whatever the cost, is humanism. And so, ahead of everything else, on this very auspicious day, I bless you to be good people.

Thank you. Go kiss the world.


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