Friday, May 22, 2015

A Tribute to Vidyanand Jha and Dheeraj Sanghi as they turn 50

This post is dedicated to two of my friends who just turned 50.

A Creative Persona

He was one of the first friends I made as a doctoral student at IIM Ahmedabad (IIMA) in 1991. Poet, film buff, supporter of the underdog, teacher of creativity, voracious reader, questioner of authority, former left activist, jazz enthusiast Vidyanand Jha celebrated his 50th birthday recently.

As doctoral students at IIMA, we had to do many of the first year classes along with the MBA students. So, we were part of one of the sections of the MBA class, in the spacious amphitheatre-like classrooms for which IIMA is famous. We were seated towards the back, on the right hand side, with one MBA student between us.  But as far as I can recall, we were already friendly even before we were serendipitously seated so close to each other.

Several things stood out about Jha – his looks, his photo-chromatic glasses which helped him hide his eyes or even let him sleep while classes were in progress, the diversity of his experience compared to the typical MBA student! Many of our classmates had probably never heard of the CPI-ML, let alone been a member. I recall one occasion on which a professor asked how many students had a rural address, and Jha was the only one who put up his hand. Jha used to hang out with the senior, scholarly yet rebellious doctoral students who held forth on the philosophy of management thought and life.

While at IIMA, Jha and I used to attend every seminar we could. So, we got exposure to a wide variety of subjects and speakers. But, neither he nor I became great researchers in the traditional academic sense. I think we just enjoyed the exposure and the discussions.

As evidenced by his Facebook posts today, Jha is a member of multiple worlds. One is the world of Maithili literature. Jha is an accomplished poet himself, and has been published by the Sahitya Akademi. He has also translated books into Hindi. I tried to persuade him to translate my book From Jugaad to Systematic Innovation into Hindi but didn’t succeed in doing so. Maybe he would have done it if it were fiction. I often ask myself how strong is the dividing line between fiction and non-fiction – after all, even non-fiction is based on the lens through which you see things. But, may be Jha doesn’t see it that way.

Jha has been a member of the faculty at IIM Calcutta since he finished FPM at IIMA. Kolkata has always been the gateway to the east, and his location has helped him remain in close contact with his home. He has also become a fluent speaker of Bengali. Kolkata has a good number of literary and cultural events, and it’s a clear sign of Jha’s cultural interests that he has managed to attend these in spite of the fact that IIMC is miles away from the centre of town. That’s quite unlike many contemporary management academics who lead a much more sequestered life.

Over the time I have known him, Jha has been a compulsive giver, particularly of macabre films. But the fun part is that he doesn’t see them as violent or offensive. Maybe that just comes from being a writer and a film buff.

Many years ago, in an article in EPW, Ramachandra Guha bemoaned the loss of the bilingual intellectual. Guha spoke too soon – Jha can be an intellectual in Maithili, Hindi and Bengali in addition to English! But if I have one regret, it’s that Jha (like many other Indian scholars) has been more in the Indian oral tradition than a great writer as far as management is concerned. From talking to him, and seeing the feedback of his students, I can see that he has lots of interesting insights into management and organizations, but few of these have found their way into print.

Reflecting his left leanings, Jha has always been quick to take the side of the underdog. I can remember one warm afternoon many summers ago when he and another friend of ours derided the IT industry for creating cybercoolies.

A Change-Maker

Another friend who turned 50 recently, is an equally weighty academic. Dheeraj Sanghi was technically one batch junior to me at IIT Kanpur, but we graduated in the same year as he did a 4-year BTech, and I did a 5-year integrated MSc programme.

I got to know Dheeraj thanks to another friend, Pramath Sinha. We were building our team for the Cultural Festival and Pramath brought in Dheeraj to manage our finances. Dheeraj was active in student politics , and so was I, but I got to know him well only after he became a member of our Festival team (he did a great job!).

After a PhD at Maryland, Dheeraj returned to our alma mater and has been a faculty member there ever since. Like Jha, Dheeraj is also a straight talker, and not one given to excessive diplomacy and tact. But he has been fiercely loyal to IITK and has put tremendous effort into sustaining its best traditions. As Dean of Academic Affairs over the last few years, he was an enthusiastic innovator, with all his efforts directed towards helping IITK achieve the best academic standards.

Dheeraj has never been afraid to experiment. He took a couple of years off to head the LN Mittal Institute of Technology in Jaipur, and though I couldn’t visit him during that stint, from what he told me it is clear he managed to try out a lot of new things there as well.

Dheeraj just moved to IIIT Delhi for a couple of years. IIIT Delhi already has a creative leader at its helm. But Pankaj Jalote should watch out, Dheeraj will soon be ready to unleash his ideas there as well.

Dheeraj’s commitment to engineering education has been evident from his blog. He has waded into controversial issues like the two-stage JEE process with gusto and has always managed to provide very logical and thought-provoking analyses.

One of Dheeraj’s other passions has been the Indian Railways. He travels long distances (by train, of course) to attend conferences of other rail buffs like himself. He explores the myriad options available on the IRCTC ticketing website, sometimes landing up in all sorts of trouble as a result, and he then has to valiantly try to recover his money using various clauses of the Railway manual.

I am surprised that Dheeraj hasn’t figured in the recent round of IIT director appointments. Maybe he is too outspoken. But, time is on his side, and I hope the country will take advantage of his energy and vast reservoir of ideas to build one of our institutions.

It’s been my privilege to know Jha and Dheeraj. As they cross 50, here’s wishing them many more years of creative endeavours.

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