By Murgie Krishnan
A memoir for Bikas Kumar Panigrahi, PGP 1981
I met Pani on my first day at IIM-A and spent two years next door to him. We were in several groups together in the first year, and in a couple in the second. He is among the people most responsible for my happiest memories at IIM, and has had an influence on me, that neither he nor I would have guessed.
Early on he quizzed me about financial accounting. I was happy to tell him what I knew, but his style of questioning made me re-examine my own knowledge, and forced me to learn some things better. “Why do you do this, what is the purpose, who benefits?” These are all questions that reflect a natural curiosity from a user perspective, while my undergrad at the University of Madras — as unfortunately most undergrad programs round the world to this day do — had only supplied a preparer perspective on financial accounting. His questions have also affected some of what I’ve done as an academic, and to ask if there is so much arbitrariness in accounting that it is essentially “cheap talk.”
In the first month we had a linear programming case, Redbrand Canners, and the four members of the group besides me were Pani, Kataria, Arya(?), and perhaps Rajiv Kapoor. The other four had all seen linear programming as IIT undergrads, and only spent a little time arguing over exactly how the decision variables had to be defined. I struggled a bit with it by myself, and then was essentially taught linear programming by Pani and Kataria. Then Pani suggested I present. I thought it was illogical given the other four clearly knew the subject matter much better. Pani convinced me that except for looking at output from a computer-based algorithm, I knew as much as the rest. I said I might bring the whole group’s grade down. But he showed more confidence in me than I had in myself, and that ended well for all of us.
I don’t think he or I could estimate easily the influence he has had on me. In terms of pure technical content, I think most of what I use today has come either from high school or my PhD days at Penn, and not my undergrad or MBA days. But the choices I have made in my career in selecting research topics or tools, has been impacted massively by the confidence instilled in me at IIM-A by very bright people around me like Pani, and his unconditional generosity.
Pani once wrote a paper that was literally like a telegram. I was shocked, and concerned for him. But he showed me the instructions for that report, and asked me, “Which instruction have I not followed?” And when I had to admit that it met the letter and spirit of the instructions, even if not my cultural expectations, he merely said, “Why waste words?” In the thirty years that I’ve been a professor, teaching all levels from freshman undergrads to MBAs to PhD dissertation students, if there is any comment I have made a lot to my students (and with some difficulty, in examining my own work), it is “Why waste words?”
Pani and I went together to Professor Pulin Garg’s house for Holi. Everyone needs to understand that having thandai with bhang is a strictly north Indian tradition, and that south of the Vindhyas this custom doesn’t exist. For a Bombay-bred Madrasi like me, to hear Professor Indira Parikh welcome us at Pulin’s, and then tell us, “This is thandai with bhang, this is plain thandai, now enjoy,” was a small cultural shock. I wanted to try the thandai with bhang but I was also afraid. Pani gently suggested I try a little bit of each kind. They tasted the same. He logically argued that therefore I should freely try either kind without fear, and noted that we came there together and would go back together, so I should feel safe. And we both enjoyed ourselves. I have had thandai with bhang a few times since, but the memory of that first experience, when thanks to Pani I grew up a little bit, is still the best.
Later that morning in our dorm (D-2) a second-year SPA student on our floor (his name escapes me) yelled and screamed and danced like a freak. I was afraid that the bhang which did nothing to us had done something to him. Pani was logical even in small matters. He said: “If he was really high and out of control, given the number of sharp corners here, he should have hurt himself by now. But he’s very careful not to hurt himself. He’s just pretending to be high. Ignore him.” In a few minutes attempts to seize our attention ceased.
From our IIM days, I want to note a couple of small things that the speakers at yesterday’s memorial service in New Jersey may not have been aware of. We once had a SPIC-MACAY concert on campus, where the rudraveena exponent Ustad Asad Ali Khan (??) performed, to an audience of maybe 10-15 people. Pani’s brief comments were: “I felt like a maharajah, with this obvious genius performing just for us. Sad so many are just worried about tomorrow’s case, and missed a rare opportunity.” The tone did not have a trace of disparagement or value judgment. It was just a “this is how it is” tone.
We both voted in the 1980 national general election (which saw Indira Gandhi make a surprise comeback) from the booth near the IIM-A campus. I voted for the Independent candidate, Professor PG Mavlankar(??). My guy came a poor third, and I was dejected. Pani had stood with me in line, but otherwise not shown much interest or emotion. I’m not even sure who he voted for. But when I was dejected, he decided the more important thing was to cure me of my dejection. He did it as usual by applying a little gentle logic: “How much do you, or I, or anyone else here at IIM-A, really know about any of these candidates, for us to conclude that one of them is better than the rest?”
My memory may be playing tricks, and I may be mixing up people and events. But I think in our second year, there was some kind of masked ball or fancy dress party, and an SPA student in our batch (Kapil??) had gone through great trouble to disguise himself as a street person or disabled vet or something. Pani told me he was sure who it was. I was about to go closer and look more carefully. He held me back, and said, “If a guy takes so much trouble to disguise himself, we should not spoil his joy, and the few extra minutes he can keep everyone guessing.”
Pani visited me once when I was doing my PhD at Penn in the early ‘80s. I was living strictly hand-to-mouth in those days. But as I had just cleared one set of qualifiers, I wanted to celebrate with Pani, and bought a bottle of wine. We went for a movie, and after the movie I realised that given my lack of experience carrying a bottle of wine in a back pack, the bottle was broken, my back pack was a mess. Pani, gently: “These things happen sometimes.” And then we used some of the coupons I had saved for a fast-food joint near campus, and it was still a celebration.
In 2010, I had a hurriedly planned 50th birthday celebration in Summit, NJ, where I live, following in the footsteps of the half-dozen KG-to-Class-Eleven classmates I have within 30 minutes’ easy driving distance. Besides them there were some friends and neighbours from my local yoga class. Pani and my elder brother were the only people who came from some significant distance. My brother (IIT-KGP, 1974) is a decent dinner speaker, at least when nothing controversial like politics is involved. But he can go on a bit. Pani (IIT-KGP, 1979) provided a marked contrast. As several speakers at the memorial service yesterday noted, he almost involuntarily maximized content per unit time and per word.
Much was said yesterday about Pani’s tendency to be brief and pithy, like an algorithm, even in casual non-professional settings. It is important to be very clear what this means. If you hear this of someone, and don’t know him, you think he’s an automaton or a robot. But to all of us who knew Pani, this reflected an innately logical and disciplined mind, a superior intelligence that had the capacity to reduce many complex ideas to their simplest form. This allowed him the bandwidth to spare on deeper questions, and to think about what was even more important.
In recent years I have dedicated some time and effort to getting data from Indian financial market regulators, notably SEBI, for academic research. It can take a long sequence of RTI queries, and test one’s patience, for these efforts to bear fruit. One excuse I have often been hit with is, “This requires disproportionate use of our resources, so under Section 7(9), we refuse.” One sequence of RTI queries had to do with stale data relating to FII trades that are filed daily by FII custodians with SEBI. I told Pani in passing that they were filed in Oracle database format. He suggested that I ask, not for just the data itself but also the database map or flow chart (the exact term I can’t recall — it’s a technical Oracle database term). He explained that if it’s in an Oracle database it should take five seconds to mask IDs and give us the data. By asking for this data map, we were letting SEBI know we knew exactly what was involved, and if it was indeed true that SEBI was so technologically challenged it could not figure out how to mask IDs and would give us stale archival data, he could show me how. He said Oracle experience is abundant, and many could help. I followed the suggestion. I never got the Oracle map. But I got the data itself!
My last exchanges with Pani were last summer, when I was wondering whether to accept an invitation to teach a two-week PhD course at IIT-KGP. I was hesitant but he persuaded me to go, and said it would be good for me and for IIT-KGP. I had a very good time, and I feel happy I did it. I hope for his sake that IIT-KGP has also benefited.
Over the next few days and weeks, months and years, many of us will recall some more Pani stories, reminding us of his gentleness and complete absence of malice, understated competence and remarkable intelligence, a sense of humour that never hurt anyone. But there is a larger picture in all these vignettes. The whole is definitely much bigger than the sum of the parts. It is said that more useful than cursing the darkness is to light a lamp. But Pani is a person who quietly made himself the lamp, by example. He made people around him better, and he made them want to be better people. He has made the world a better place.
We may with some effort find people as gentle as him, and maybe even as persuasive as he was. But it would be rare to find someone as gentle as he was, be as persuasive as he was. The world is full of people who try to persuade others by the grand dramatic gesture or by aggressively dominating a conversation. Pani was one person who was completely happy in his own skin, and had no need for flamboyance, and was very content to not dominate a conversation. Yet he was persuasive without ever seeming to want to persuade anyone of anything. This is more than competence and intelligence. It reflects character and wisdom. The real work of the world is done by people like Pani.
I want his wife Niki, and his daughters Pooja and Ekta, to know that Pani’s memory will always be a blessing to all of us who knew him, and cherish the part he played in our lives. I am sure I speak for everyone who knew him when I say that I am extremely proud to say that he was … my friend.
Rest in peace, Pani!
By Madhavan Radhakrishnan
Sad we have lost a very good friend and above all a very good human being. Family lost a great person and it is difficult to overcome this personal loss…only time is the healer.
My simple prayer for Pani,
Dear Almighty God
I prayed for Pani and so many others too prayed for Pani
You did listen to all our prayer
Yet you have taken away Pani from our midst
Lord we do not question you why you have taken Pani so early
But we request you to hear our prayer for Pani once again
Lord please lift Pani to your place where you dwell, giving a New Life to Pani as you always promised
Let Pani enjoys in your presence among all Prophets, Saints and Holy people
Let him enjoy the infinite joy and peace in eternity and rejoice for ever and ever
Lord forgive Pani if any error or mistake he has done on earthly life with your unconditional love
Lord we believe you are real and so is our life and relationship with you as you are the Creator
With faith in you we request this prayer to be fulfilled for Pani
Lord bless his family to accept this great loss as you understand what emotions mean more than anyone else
as everything springs from you
God please accept this prayer as it is from our heart
Thank you God for listening to our prayer.