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The Call of Roots

The Call of Roots

Sentinel Digital Desk

Our Bureau

The call of roots is something very hard to define. Indeed, just what is it that makes a person come back to his or her roots, even after having gone far away to a distant land, to embrace new people and newer cultures, to a place where there is no trace of his or her ancestry? While we often tend to forget about our origins in the humdrum of day-to-day existence and in our quest to move ahead in life, the fact remains that a person is incomplete without his roots. Such is its power that it can make one go out of the way to preserve his or her heritage, even in foreign and unknown shores, against the set and conventional patterns of life of the land where he or she now resides.

In this issue of mélange, we would like to acquaint our readers with one such highly successful Non-Resident Assamese based in Singapore who has tasted the heights of success yet fondly remembers and wishes to contribute for the welfare of his people back home. We are talking about Abhimanyu Talukdar, a highly sought-after business consultant based in Singapore who presently heads the Smile Asia Global Alliance as its Secretary-General. Smile Asia is a multi-country alliance of charities with activities across 20 countries working together to treat facial deformities through surgical intervention.

A widely travelled and resourceful man who is known for his organizational expertise across the world, Abhimanyu was last year elected the President of South East Asia Chapter of Axom Xahitya Xabha – the apex socio-cultural and literary body of Assam. With the support of this dynamic son of the soil and his team, the Axom Xahitya Xabha is all set to host the 1st Global Assam Convention in mid-November.

In a recent conversation with The Sentinel, Abhimanyu talks about his journey as a child bought up in a remote town of Arunachal Pradesh to now head one of the largest non-profit alliances of the world.

The Call of Roots

Following are the excerpts.

Please tell us about your growing up days.

Ans: I was born and brought up in Pasighat, a small but incredibly beautiful town in Arunachal Pradesh. My father, Prof Atul Chandra Talukdar was earlier a lecturer in JN College and my mother Renu Talukdar was a school teacher in a local government school. My father is from Nalbari while my mother is from Sibsagar. I grew up in a very cosmopolitan environment – JN college faculty was from throughout India. I completed my matriculation from Daying Ering Memorial Govt Higher Secondary School. After that my father joined Rajiv Gandhi University in Doimukh as a Professor. He had finally retired as the Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences. Incidentally, he still teaches and currently guiding eight PhD students at USTM (University of Science and Technology.)

When I was young, I was not very studious but somehow used to do well in examinations without putting much efforts. But I was naturally good in mathematics, which in turn possibly meant that my understanding of logic was good. While not bragging, my grasp of mathematics was so good that I had corrected some middle school textbooks, which was endorsed by the school teachers.

I had difficulty in public speaking and that was something I groomed myself later on in life.

After matriculation, I wanted to study in Cotton College but could not get admission into higher secondary stream because of high cut-off marks. I remember being utterly dejected and returned to Doimukh in Arunachal where I took admission in Doimukh Higher Secondary School. My heart was not at all there and was attending the classes just for the sake of it. But as I look back today, I made some very good and lasting friends during those days. One of them was Vivek Nabam (then a personality of a local goon, now OSD to his brother, Arunachal's senior cabinet minister Nabam Rebia). He had invited me to his house and connected me to his circle of friends. People wondered how we became friends – seemingly very opposite personalities. Only much later he had told my mother that he was impressed by how a lanky young Assamese boy lived with such a laid-back and nonchalant attitude in a Nyishi dominated tribal area. I had great time in Doimukh and enjoyed the wilderness to the hilt.

My father, however, realized that my academics would suffer if I remained in Doimukh and he made me go to Guwahati to complete my higher secondary education. I stayed in Guwahati with my maternal grandmother, but I missed one year of school as I skipped the examinations for being ill-prepared. Later, I passed the exam and proceeded to Chandigarh, again an initiative of my father, where I took admission and graduated from DAV College, Panjab University.

The Call of Roots

You also had a short stint in the media industry…

Ans: There is a story behind that too. One of my flat mates in Chandigarh had got two admission forms for the Indian Institute of Mass Communication ('IIMC'). He wanted to apply for the Advertising & Public Relations course and sell the other form. I decided that I should buy the form if he sold it at half the price, which he did. So, I applied for the English journalism course. Although I did not know much about IIMC at that time, I cracked the entrance test. It was possibly because I was reading a lot of newspapers and magazines during my graduation days that substantially improved my general knowledge. Only after I cleared that examination did I realize that IIMC was a prestigious institution. Incidentally, it was at IIMC that I met my future wife Alpana Sarma.

How and when did you shift to Singapore?

Ans: When I was working with Hindustan Times in Delhi, my father called me saying a letter had come from Singapore addressed to me. The letter was from a Singapore-based NGO and they had called me for a personal interview in December 2003. I appeared for the interview without any expectations, but surprisingly I was selected for the same. I left for Singapore in May 2004.

They had also selected many other candidates from various Indian Institute of Managements ('IIMs'). The good thing about Singapore is that it's a very meritocratic society, unlike India where there is slicing and dicing based on your origin, accent, place of study, family ties, etc. In Singapore, I was treated at par with all – something not very common in India then.

As I landed in Singapore, a whole new world opened for me. I saw the professionalism of corporate life for the first time and became serious about my job, because it would have been really embarrassing if I had to return to India for failing to perform in Singapore. So, I worked really very hard. In the first six months I implemented a few good organizational partnerships and fundraising projects. I came into the notice of the then CEO and the top brass.

Eventually, I was made the Head of Fundraising Division. It was substantial because I was primarily responsible to raise over 110 million dollars a year in a country where the total population was just over 4.5 million then. Happy to mention that Harvard Business School did a case study and found that ours was one of the largest per-capita fundraising programs in the world.

How did you get involved in Smile Asia?

Ans: I am one of the co-founders of Smile Asia, together with Dr Vincent Yeow of Singapore and James Fox of the United States. Earlier, it was called Operation Smile and I was part of the team that organized the first international medical mission at the MMC Hospital in Guwahati. That was in late 2008. Later, the Government of Assam donated part of the hospital to help form a Comprehensive Cleft & Craniofacial Centre (GC4) at the hospital. We retrofitted it to bring it up to an international standard facility. Very important to mention here that all these were only possible because of the active and personal involvement of people like Ranjit Barthakur (then Chairman of the India legal entity), Ratan Tata (Chairman of Tata Trusts) and Himanta Biswa Sarma (then Minister of Health, Assam).

Substantial financial support and transfer of expertise was approved by the then Chairman of Operation Smile, Inc. Bill Fox and other board members, including Donald Trump Jr, who is also the eldest son of current US President. Later, they both were involved in the formation of Smile Asia.

Smile Asia was officially born in 2016 with the thought that the traditional way of international aid delivery does not work anymore. It can no longer be a master-slave or donor-recipient relationship between non-profits. It should be a partnership of equals. The Smile Asia idea thankfully got support from member charities across many countries. Currently, as a group, we have activities across 20 countries around the world.

The member charities asked me to become the Secretary-General of the alliance and set up its international secretariat in Singapore.

While I am also partially involved in non-executive roles in my family's investments and other businesses, I like my work in Smile Asia – non-profit work and corresponding challenges excite me. It is emotionally satisfying. Managing people in the non-profit sector is always more challenging because people here do not come for monetary gains, but with an intention to make an impact on the society and in turn a sense of achievement.

The Call of Roots

What do you attribute your success to?

Ans: I attribute my success to my father Prof Talukdar, who used to be, and will always remain, a great inspiration for me. He imbibed in me that there are no short cuts to hard work. And my mother, who had always greeted my failures with the same smile as she would do in my successes – teaching me the very important lesson of life that failures are as important as successes. I also attribute my success to my wife Alpana – she is my most honest critic, which helps me push my limits and come out better, every time. I learnt from her the need and importance of sincerity, and that achievements are only worthwhile if we do not let go of our humility. She keeps me grounded.

Regarding skill sets, I would attribute my success to my ability to quickly establish business relationships with people. I remember, while growing up my mother would always reprimand me for making many new friends, which according to her, was a wastage of time. This was looked down during my growing up days and I don't know if things have changed much now. But I realized that this ability to make new relationships quickly helped me a lot in my professional life. For instance, a business deal is almost always easier to close if you like the person sitting on the other side of the table.

The Call of Roots

Last year, you were appointed as the President of South East Asia chapter of Axom Xahitya Xabha and you are also planning the 1st Global Assam Convention in Singapore. Please tell us about it.

Ans: I feel privileged that I have come to a point in life now where I can be of some help for people from my home state. But living in a distant land, it keeps bothering me (like it must bother all other NRA's) that how should we pass on our rich culture and traditions to our next generation.

So, when key office bearers of Axom Xahitya Xabha approached me to get me involved in the South East Asia chapter, I took it as a blessing in disguise. Initially I was a bit hesitant because I do not have much knowledge of Assamese literature or culture, nor can I speak the language in its pure form. I conveyed the same to them, but they insisted that my organizational capabilities would be of much use for the Xabha. In retrospect, my initial hesitation proved to be the stimulus for getting involved in Axom Xahitya Xabha because I myself wanted to learn afresh my own language and culture and at the same time wanted to ensure that my son learns the same.

Axom Xahitya Xabha is the oldest and apex socio-cultural body of Assam and under the aegis of the South East Asia chapter, we wanted to do something that has never been attempted before. So, the idea of organizing the 1st Global Assam Convention came to me. The convention will be held in Singapore in mid-November 2019 and we are expecting participation of around 500 people from all over the world, including Assam of course. I would like to reiterate that I was very clear right from the beginning that the event should not be called 'Global Assamese Convention' but rather 'Global Assam Convention' so that it includes all the tribes and communities of Assam.

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