Small Fish, Big Fish and BIGGER Fish

As soon as Government of Maharashtra gave permission to open restaurants in Mumbai, Professor and I decided to meet at our usual coffee shop for conversations. Apart from listening to his interesting stories, I was also missing the characteristic aroma of his cigar – Cohiba Spectre – one of the best cigars made from Nicaraguan Estelí and Jalapa leaves.

The restaurant was reconfigured a bit with tables more sparsely arranged. There was an addition of an aquarium tank, however. The owner told us that he got this aquarium for a bargain from another restaurant that was closed due to the COVID-19.

“Doesn’t the aquarium make a difference Professor? he asked us, and we agreed. The aquarium looked gorgeous in the neon lights.

We took a table right next to the aquarium. Professor lit his cigar. I asked the waiter for the ash tray.

Professor took a deep puff. He was staring at the aquarium that had a variety of fish, some small, some big and some even bigger. He continued to stare at the fish in the aquarium till our coffee arrived.

I saw him smile while lifting the coffee mug. I knew he wanted to tell me a story.

“Dr Modak, did I ever tell you my story on small fish, big fish and bigger fish? He asked

I said “No professor, how would I know? I am not a fish eater”

“Well, Dr Modak. I must tell you this story then – Professor tolerated  my PJ.

This is a story when I was a Senior Research Associate during my post-doctoral days at the University.

One day my Guide called me to his chamber urgently, He had just returned from the office of the United Nations. He seemed quite excited but at the same time I saw him a bit worried.

“Buddy, I just had an exciting meeting with Mr Karl Hahn who is the Chief of Climate Change at the UN’s Climate Resilience Program”

He hung his coat on the wooden hanger next to his desk.

“Karl is organizing a brainstorming session with some of the top administrators of mega cities in Asia to discuss climate change and cities. He feels that preparing mega cities  for climate resiliency is going to be critical. You probably know that mega cities contribute to nearly half of the world’s GDP. Protecting their assets and avoiding any disruptions is critical to ensure that these guzzling engines of world economy do not  get throttled. Mega cities must be future ready”

I said “you are right Sir”

My Guide continued

“Now the challenge is that Karl wants that I write a position paper on this subject and present in the conference that will soon be held. He prefers an “outside perspective” rather than making a presentation himself”

I said “He is right Sir”

My Guide smiled

“Buddy, that’s not the real reason. I know while Karl has a point, he is simply not capable to articulate the subject in a manner that is logical, science based, data driven and coherent that will convince all the city chiefs to come up with a joint or collaborative program. So, he wants to me to draft such a position paper as a ”consultant”.

I said “You are right Sir”

I knew my Guide was very ambitious and a smart international expert.

“Buddy, the problem is that I simply don’t have enough time to really sit down and write this position paper. You know how busy I am in the next two weeks. And Karl wants this position  paper in a week”

I said “Absolutely Sir, you are too busy”

My Guide got up from his chair and walked towards the window.

“I think we need to find someone who is sharp, writes well, has a research aptitude and a background in climate change, preferably with basics in urban planning, Can you find someone on the Campus?” He asked me.

I said “Understood Sir, I will find out. Will you pay this person?”

My Guide said “No problem. I will. I will pay from my budget”

I remembered my friend who could fit the requirements. He had just got married and was in stress to manage the living expenses. He was looking for some work that will get him some side income.   I spoke to him and talked about the position paper. He agreed.

Very next day, I took him along to my  Guides chamber.

After few preliminaries like asking his qualifications and experience, my Guide elaborated a bit about the position paper. He said everything was in his “head” and all he needed was someone who would transcribe and capture his thoughts and support his arguments with credible data.

“I am asking you to help just because I don’t have time right now. But I will give you a briefing now and you can start working right away. And of course, you will be paid.”

My Guide then gave a briefing, and my good friend was listening and taking down notes. When I heard him, I realized that he was alright when it was to talk about the basic concept, but he certainly lacked the rigor or granularity that mattered to make the position paper rock solid.

My friend worked very hard on the preliminary leads keeping in mind the overall expectations. He spent hours in the library and on the internet, extracted data and more importantly developed a framework for collaborative urban reliance. His draft position paper was very impressive.

When we met my Guide in his chamber, he took a quick look at the draft. “Good work” he said.

“I would need to rewrite however – but no worries”

He gave some comments that I thought were rather superficial.

When we were about to leave, he patted on my friend’s back and said

“I am going to insist and tell Karl to include your name as a co-author. This will greatly help you in your career”

Both of us felt grateful to his kind gesture. My friend told me how lucky I was to have an opportunity to work with such a large-hearted Guide.

In the next couple of days, my Guide called both of us to his chamber. He seemed rather angry.

He told us that he had worked very hard on the  draft and improved further. He gave this improved draft to Karl with my friend’s name as the co-author. Karl although accepted the position paper, he refused to have my friend’s name as the co-author. “It was an assignment to you, and just you!” He had said.

My Guide was very apologetic to me and my friend.

“This is how the UN works. How will the system ever recognize young talents?” He said in a frustrating tone.

We felt sorry but we appreciated the stand he had taken for my friend.

A week passed by. My Guide called me urgently to his chamber. He had just returned after a  meeting with Karl Hahn from the UN Office.

This time I saw him really upset.

“Buddy, something shocking happened today. I went for the conference. An hour before the session, Karl told me that he will be making the presentation paper instead of me. “I am sorry, this is as per UN protocol”  He shrugged his shoulders.

“I was disappointed, but still I let it go. The real shock came however when I saw the print of the paper in the folders that were circulated. The paper had only one author Karl Hahn and my name was nowhere mentioned”

I said “This is truly shocking Sir”

I could see that my Guide was boiling with rage.

“Lesson learned. Never trust these idiot UN administrators. You simply get used”

He gave me the folder to read. I left the chamber.

I felt bad for my Guide.

Out of curiosity, I opened the folder of papers and spotted the position paper on Climate Resilient cities with Karl Hahn as the Author.

I was astonished to see that it was the same draft my friend had prepared and submitted to my Guide.

Professor ended his story.

He took a deep puff with his cigar, stared at the aquarium and said

“Dr Modak, in an aquarium, there are always small fish, big fish and bigger fish”

I said “You are right Professor. Soon, small fish become big and then bigger. Roles change but the “system” continues”

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  1. Excellent write up Dr. Modak! We do have all these three types of fishes in our politics, research and all other fields.

  2. Sir, in this scenario… How do the small fishes turn into big and big ones into bigger unless they find atleast one good fish or inherit or hit a jackpot in this viscious circle through which they get to take the leap from small to big and big to bigger.
    How do we ensure that the fish does not get stagnant where it is.

  3. The vicious circle continues to gulp in the newbee aspirants and churn out the experienced senior legends ! Irony of fate !!

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