A Tribute To My Dear Friend, Neeraj Shaabi

Neeraj and I met at a STD phone booth, which we both used to land up at 10 pm, when the rates were 90% discounted for calls to other parts of the world. We were calling our respective spouses, and this was the only way to have a reasonably decent conversation, rather than the 20 second staccato “hello, all well, how are you, missing you, call you at night… love you” call.

Neeraj was much younger than me, but we hit it off and became great friends.. at that time, we both smoked, I think, and enjoyed the occasional puff together… and chats on books, life and the future of the world… he moved from company to company, rising slowly but surely, and for some inexplicable reason, each time he made a move, he and I would meet, and we would discuss the pros and cons of each move…

Finally, he got some really brilliant breaks in Singapore, where I met him more than ever before, and we enjoyed our crab dinners, and tete-a-tete, walks in which we contemplated the meaning of life, and so forth… But it was so good to see this young lad from Chandigarh, and barely a graduate, become the Country Manager of IBM in Singapore, then the MD of TIBCO in Asia, and finally, his dream job – the MD of Oracle in Asia… managing a huge number of people across many countries.

Of course, in each new role, he was simply outstanding, and would bring to bear his own unique stamp that made his stint unforgettable. He would share some of his ideas and his presentations or sometimes, no presentations, and they were really brilliant, and unusual. He had a ball. And we were meeting each other almost once a month, as I was travelling a great deal to Singapore.

Neeraj was a silent contributor to Head Held High. He gave us money, he came and spent time and effort… at Global Action on Poverty in 2015, he was so involved and spent a few days at Ahmedabad, had such a great time interlocking with Changemakers, and always being moved by what we all did together. We had an unwritten agreement that once he had completed his fill of the corporate world, and that would have been a couple of years more, that he would come work full-time at Head Held High, and use his capability in helping transform the lives of those who are every poor.

I personally loved this man. While he truly lived his work life, he ached to contribute and did it in every way possible in his work, and when he could, at Head Held High, to impact those who were poor.

A couple of weeks into his dream role of managing Oracle across Asia, Neeraj discovered that he had cancer, and at a Stage that made recovery virtually impossible. I was in tears and so angry that this had happened to him and at such a time, but Neeraj was simply matter of fact. Initially, I thought that perhaps he was just being brave, but Neeraj being Neeraj, simply measured what was what, and focused on what he could do, instead of wasting additional time in crying about what might have been.
Before this, I had seen Neeraj as a highly aspirational executive, in the fast lane… but now I saw a person of enormous courage, with such love for his family and intent on ensuring that they were taken care of. He had the courage to face this new reality, and the courage to love life despite death staring at him at his face.

My admiration for Neeraj grew in the year and half that he went through operation through operation, each intended to make it better, each failing to do so, with a mix-up of test results from the doctor or hospital that suddenly provided a new hope, to then virtually in a day destroy those hopes. Anyone else would have been shattered, and would have simply chosen to let go. It only made Neeraj more determined to work harder, live fully, and to savour every single moment.

Neeraj cherished every day, every hour, every coffee, every moment of friendship, every interaction at work, joyous family sessions. In that year, Neeraj lived so powerfully, it was as much as most of us live in 20 years and are unconscious about. We went for walks, talked endlessly, met sometimes at places where he needed to go for treatments, or at his office which he was so proud of, and in the end, he sang a series of songs on his guitar, that I’ve shared here… this was just 25 days before he died.

I lost my very good friend. Head Held High lost a wonderful ambassador and advisor. The world lost a beautiful soul.

With lots of love, and a knowledge that you are in good hands, from all of us.