Arnab Kumar Chanda...The Master of Swag

That's Arnab in green with some of us Jacobeans from the St James' School,
Calcutta, Batch of '92, at his house (Arnab’s in green
and that’s me in red)

This post is about a dear friend who is no more. It's not a food story. Or perhaps it is. 

"Can you place me," said the voice on the phone which was that of a Facebook connection and a blog reader. "I was your senior in school. You used to come to our house at Regent Park where Mrs Robson would give Bengali tuitions."

"I remember that," I replied. "In fact a close friend of mine from high school used to live at the same complex and I would often visit him. His name is Arnab Chanda. I don't know if you would know him."

"Of course I do," replied Shuvodeep. "We were of the same age. Grew up together. Our families were close," and then, after a pause, "he is no more."

"What, the signal is weak here, I am not sure if I heard you right, can you repeat what you said," I replied, not wanting to accept what I had just heard.

"Arnab passed away a few months back I am afraid. He had cancer. We were all really shaken up by it."

There was no escaping from the truth. I had heard it right.

I headed to the Facebook page on my phone the moment the call ended.  I saw that it said that we are friends. Then I scrolled down the wall and saw tributes to Arnab. I then spotted a video made during his memorial service in the US. It had been posted by his younger sister, whom I remembered as a little kid who later joined my college in Calcutta. I watched a couple of minutes of the video, stories of  how he fought cancer. Then I gave up. I couldn't watch it anymore. Perhaps I had watched thirty seconds of it in reality and not the two minutes that I said I did. Perhaps someday I will gather courage to watch the whole 1 hour and 40 minutes of it. Not today though.

I felt shocked at the fact that I had no idea of Arnab's passing away and that almost three months had passed since then. 

My first wry impulse was to blame the Facebook metrics and algorithms. Then I reminded myself of the principles of 'oneness of self and environment' and that of 'taking responsibility of one's own life and actions." What was the point of following Buddhist, or any principles, if one didn't apply it in daily life? 

The truth is that I hadn't stayed touch with Arnab. I should have.

I clicked on the YouTube video again and chanced upon a picture of us at a party at his house with fellow class-mates from St James'. This was taken a year after we had passed out of school. On an evening when Arnab had just returned to Kolkata on a break from Stanford where he had gone to study. His parents had thrown a party and invited a few of us who were his close friends from school, and who were still in Kolkata, over. 

Everything about that evening came back to me when I saw the picture from 1993 or '94. It was possibly was my father's birth or death anniversary on the same day if memory serves me right. A day we ate vegetarian food at home in his memory as suggested by my mother. Not a day for fun and frolic.

Yet, I went over to Arnab's. I think my father who would have approved of that because he himself was a man whose friends were most dear to him and like Arnab, he too had once left India to study abroad. 

I did have non-vegetarian food that night. I remember us watch a tennis match where Venus Williams walloped Monica Seles, or was it Steffi Graff, on TV at his place. Perhaps I don't remember everything that well.

I felt a bit distraught as the news of Arnab's death began to sink in. So I decided to sit down and write about Arnab instead of the post on my recent Goan holiday that I had planned to write today. This post is perhaps a couple of years later than when it should have been written, but then better than late than never as my father would say.

St James' Calcutta, 1990-92

Arnab and I had first met at St James' School in Calcutta. This was a time which was the closest to a Platoon  (from the movie) moment in my life.  St James’ was a school located far away from home compared to Assembly of God Church, Tollygunge, where I was before this and which was not as famous as the century old St James'. This was the big league and one suddenly felt very vulnerable. This was also the first time that I was in all boy's school and not a coed.

There was a bunch of us who had joined the school's science section from other schools that year.. I was one. Arnab was another. Arnab was introduced to us as someone who had topped Madhyamik (West Bengal government board exams) at St Lawrence's, both known for its high standards. His parents wanted to move him to an ISC Board school, which St James was, as he wanted to study in the US after the 12th and ISC was considered to be better suited for that. This is talk from the early 90s so I do hope you don't zone out.

Arnab was not considered to be the class genius though. That accolade was reserved for someone else called Chari, who too had joined from outside. Chari would top every exam with the elan of Tendulkar smashing Warne at Sharjah. He would figuratively walk with his head in the clouds, or, Resnick Halliday's physics book to be more precise. Every teacher loved Chari even though he did have an understated sense of impish humour. He was the sort of guy whom our English teacher, Mrs Sarkar, would indulgently ignore when he sat and practised IIT and SAT mock papers at the back of the class while she taught us Macbeth. She knew he would max his English papers in any case, and which he did. She knew that these boys from Kolkata were fixated on pursuing a course in science matching shoulders with the best that the world had to offer.

Arnab was a different kettle of fish though. Make no mistake, he was very good at academics and very sharp  too and would knock back exam papers like a Viv Richards dispatching a fast bowler over the boundary, to use another cricket metaphor from our time. While excellent in maths and science, Arnab loved reading, was comfortable in both English and Bengali, and was quite interested in current affairs and polity. 

Arnab epitomised the word 'swag' for us way before we would had even heard of it. Arnab was shorter than most of us, but in a group would walk ahead with us, again with the nonchalance of King Viv. Arnab had long hair and was most tickled when someone pointed out a similarity of him with that of a 'new actor called Sharukh Khan'. Arnab would keep adjusting and patting his hair, as he walked. He was fond of for Hindi films too I think. Possibly a Madhuri Dixit fan at a time when I changed loyalties from Juhi Chawla to Bhagyashree. His conversations, on topics which were most diverse, showed that Arnab Chanda was anything but a bookworm. 

He was not a teacher's pet and was often hauled up by our teachers for not being the most obedient and docile person around.  I remember a time when a bunch of us was kept in detention by the school vice principal for not paying attention in class.  Arnab's father had come to apologise on behalf of Arnab so that Arnab could go home as he was in 'training'. Not for the marathon or anything. Training to get into a University of his dream.

Arnab was possibly the only person in school who lived closed to my house. We took the same S7 bus to school at around 7 am in the morning to Rabindra Sadan, where we were joined by more class mores and some of the La Martinere boys, and changed buses, To Jora Girja for us and top Beckbagan for the La Marts guys. 

I'd board the bus at my stop and wait for Arnab to get up, two bus stops later. We would chat, stifling yawns, for the next thirty odd minutes in the bus. We had a special spot in the bus that we liked to stand at and there we would chat about movies, crushes and in the second year, about our future plans and ambitions in life. We had to stand through the journey. There was a particular seat in the bus which we both coveted though neither of us got to sit there even once during those two years.

After doing well in my tenth, I found mechanical physics and trigonometry and stuff most daunting in my plus two. I had a most torrid time then and occasionally thought of throwing in the towel and moving to commerce even if it meant dropping a year. Arnab goaded me on then and offered to help me out and said I could do it. He once even invited me and another classmate who was struggling with maths and physics too, to come home, so that he could help us overcome our mind blocks since our teachers at school and even private tutors couldn't.

I could tell you about how all those pendulum puzzles and sec and cos theta lessons in school were of no use to me later in life but the truth us that period taught me how to fight back adversities and challenges in life without giving up. Arnab's act of generousness taught me the importance of being there for friends who were battling life's challenges. 

Ironically, I wasn't there for him when he did so later in life.

The thing that I remembered from that afternoon was the delicious Bengali spread of chicken curry, rice, dal and chutney that his mother, a professor  at JU whom we were all a bit scared of unlike his dad who seemed less strict as it often is in Bengali families, had ensure that the family cook had kept ready for the three of us. Unlike what we were used to, Arnab had the chutney WITH his rice and dal and not after. "It's a Ghoti thing," he explained. I followed his suit and added some chutney to chicken curry and rice too and, as always, Arnab was right. 

The combination tasted lovely.

Taking flight

School got over, and after lording over the IIT Jee and SAT, and ISC on the way, Arnab went off to Stanford. 

Encouraged by my late grandpa who believed in doing well in academics and doing what made one happy, I changed streams to the arts from science and landed up at Presidency at Sociology, something which made Arnab very happy and proud of me. He could be bossy like that, to use a phrase kids do today. Come to think of it today, it’s probably moving out of science and falling into the arms of sociology that has helped me be where I am today, living the life I would love to live and not one that I would be told to live.

Arnab and I would catch up at his place when he came home on a break. He told me about the wonders of America and the education system there and the dorm canteen and the food there. Neither of us had lived away from home till then and all of this was most fascinating. In turn I would tell him about Presidency, Sociology and crushes, not always in that order.

What excited him the most, I remember, was the fact that there was unlimited ice cream for dinner at his dorm. Apparently, the gentleman who had given the grant for the dorm a couple of centuries back, had laid only one condition while donating his money for it. That the boys who lived in the dorm in the years to come should be served ice cream. Either because he was fond of it or his son. I've just turned a year older. 

My memory is not as sharp I guess and this is from 25 odd years back.

From School friends to Facebook friends

Arnab and I lost touch after I moved out of Kolkata too after graduating out of B school. Social media brought us together a few years back first through Orkut and then Facebook. We'd often chat online and check out each other's pages and share stories of our lives. 

He'd tell me how wonderful the quality of life was in LA and once, on my asking, why he had changed his name to Arnab Hussain Chanda on Facebook (to support the Obama campaign it seemed), and later he asked me how things were in India if he was to move here. 

I realised that he was 'one of us' in a sense as he had moved to some sort of business consulting. He hadn't gone down the academic route from what I think, despite his academic brilliance. I once saw him put up a video of his doing a stand up act at an open mic in the US. Once I put a post wondering why people who move on abroad assume the local accent. He wrote in explaining how it makes work seamless. Never one to not share his opinion in a discussion.

He had a point of view on my food posts too! 

At times he'd put comments based on his travels across the world and I would think to myself, ok I get it, you have seen the world! Later in life, a college senior explained to me that people in Kolkata feel the same about people like us who have moved out. They feel that we try to use that as a way to show that we know better. Fair enough. The discussions did enrich my knowledge of food and from what I remember from my school days, he loved to eat. He'd bring a big 'tiffin box' to school and was fond of biryani too as any true Kolkatan is.

My last memory of Arnab was his taking my postal address from me as his father wanted send us a card inviting us to Arnab's wedding in Kolkata a few years back.

That's it. There was a lot which happened in his life since then as I found out today.

I wasn't there for him so I don't think it's fair for me to write about it.

Perhaps I should make some tomato chutney one day, which I never have before, and have it with dal and rice.

That would make for a nice tribute to Arnab. What do you think?

Here's the link to the video tribute to Arnab Kumar Chanda, my epic friend