My Brother Atul Chitnis (1962-2013)

atul1Atul’s death on June 3 sparked off a whole spate of eulogies. I knew that he was an authority on Open Source, of course – that fact was hard to escape if one spent any amount of time around him. But I must admit that I was unaware of just how much he had achieved till I read these articles.

I was always immensely proud of Atul while he was alive, and even more now that my awareness gaps have been filled. He was the rock star of our family, and by that I don’t mean his considerable musical skills. He was the guy who made a difference, touched more lives and – despite his tendency to lay waste to anyone who did not see eye to eye with him – had more friends than anyone else in the Chitnis clan.

It has been pointed out that Atul had certain overwhelming aspects to his personality. In the articles I read, this fact was highlighted in context with his strong opinions about technology and the people who make it happen. It is true – Atul was far from subtle. In fact, he was a rampaging bulldozer on the highway of his life, and not just professionally.

I agree with the person who wrote that he had no time for mediocrity. As many of us learned the hard way, that is not always a good thing – especially when it percolates down into personal relationships. However, the part of me that I had in common with him (which is a pretty big part) has always understood where he came from. Though we followed very different paths in our adult lives, that’s where I come from too. And, apart from some other things, that’s the side of Atul and his life that I want to write about.

I may be forgiven for not writing about his technological accomplishments. Though I’m his brother, I’m nobody’s technology expert. Also, I’m a die-hard Blackberry fan and still use Windows. When I bought an iPad a couple of years ago, he was ecstatic for a while. He was under the impression that it was only a matter of time till an iPhone replaced my BB and a Mac ousted my mid-range Lenovo.

That never happened, but that does not mean that Atul did not make a ‘techie’ difference in my life. It was he who taught me how to use a computer and the Internet – the first email and chat exchanges I ever did were with him. And he practically manhandled me into buying my first mobile phone. We got along somehow, as brothers often tend to do…

Some Background….

We – our mother, Atul and I – arrived from Germany in 1972. On Atul’s 10th birthday, in fact, and one month after my eighth. The only time we ever visited the country of our birth together again was in 2008 to spend Christmas with our mother.

Christmas

We have been asked innumerable times why, since we were both born there, we didn’t just stay in Germany. Even though our father was an Indian, our mother is German and we had every right to. Why would anyone give up such an advantage?

I have heard Atul respond to this question in different ways, depending on who was asking. This may be hard to believe for many who knew him, but he could be diplomatic when he wanted to be. I don’t live my life in the public eye and Atul is gone, so I don’t have anything to lose by telling the truth – we had no choice. Our father had masterminded our lives long before we were done with crapping our diapers, and staying in Germany after a designated period was not part of his plan for us.

This brings me to what I consider the crux of what I’m trying to convey here.

Like it or not, sons live their adult lives in a manner which is directly or indirectly dictated by their fathers. We may either spend our entire life complying with our father’s wishes or rebelling against them. We may either do exactly what the old man taught us to do, or do exactly the opposite. But either way, the fathers of sons hold the reins from beyond the grave.

There are ways to get around this problem, but it involves shrinks and counselors and takes quite a bit of time and dedication towards personal healing. Some men invest in these methods, others don’t. Atul didn’t.

Throughout the Indian part our childhood, our father was a person to be feared and steered clear of. He was a hard and peculiar man – brilliant in his own way, but driven by his own demons and completely oblivious of how his ways affected others. He was the son of a farmer who made good – worked his way out of a dead-end Maharashtrian village, studied engineering in England and specialized in oil hydraulics in Germany.

He met our mother in London, married her, brought her back to Germany at some point and later took off to India, where he built a sizable industrial empire. We saw him only sporadically in the first few years of our lives. His empire eventually collapsed, but at the time he sent his summons for our mother and the two us to leave Germany and come to India, it was just being built. There was no question of refusing – when our father wanted something, it would happen (sounds familiar?)

1

And so, on February 20, 1972, we arrived at Mumbai airport. It is hard to describe how massive the contrast was, and the incredible culture shock. Two days earlier, we had left the orderly life, clean streets and neatly working systems of Berlin behind and were now confronted with the bewildering, chaotic sights, sounds and smells of what was and still arguably is India’s filthiest and most insane city. We had never seen so many people occupying so little space. Our mother had been in India a few times before, so she was better prepared.

The cacophony all around us seemed to indicate that some kind of monumental disaster had taken place. It had, but I understood only much later that the disaster was an ongoing one – a disaster called Mumbai. If there was one thing Atul and I shared throughout, it was our intense dislike of this strange city that has so successfully made a mockery of all that is worthwhile and dignified in life.

Belgaum – The Early Years

Thankfully, our stay in Mumbai was brief. Two days later, we left the banshee scream of this perpetually dying city behind to be greeted by the languid yawn of Belgaum – the city where we spent our childhood and teen years. Despite the evil memories of the events that happened there, I still love Belgaum – and in fact all small towns where life is still measured in months and years, not minutes and seconds.

2

The only thing there that was life-sized – or rather larger than life – was the all-engulfing, all-consuming figure of our father.

This was a man with an agenda. As I said, he had our lives all mapped out. Atul was to be groomed to take over the engineering side of his industries, and I for the commercial part. Anything that somehow appeared to deviate from this agenda was frowned on and eventually snuffed out. What counted were the highest possible marks in school and college. Even our friends were evaluated on the basis of their report cards.

Though we both had immense readjustment problems (we didn’t even speak English when we arrived) Atul’s school life in India appeared much smoother than mine. The real problems started when Atul joined college – that was the point where it became evident that he had no inclination for mechanical engineering at all.

There were only three things that really interested him by then – a charming girl called Shubha Deshpande, a guitar he had somehow wrenched out of our father, and a strange little device about the size of a grocer’s calculator.

To me, it was nothing more than that – a calculator. It turned out that this little piece made by Casio was a lot more than that. Atul would attach it to our mother’s tape recorder and fill one tape after the other with screeching sounds not unlike those we still hear from dot-matrix printers in Government offices. The device was somehow interfacing with the battered old Telefunken tape recorder. They were communicating with each other and producing those strange sounds – programs.

Between courting Shubha by day, playing the guitar in the evenings and this mysterious activity for hours on end at night, there wasn’t much time for college work. Atul’s deviation from his carefully course did not go down well with our father. There were loud, often violent rows – but Atul had inherited our father’s tendency to never back down.

His fights with our father are the most painful memories I have of our early years. He drifted further and further away. Finally, after his graduation, he left Belgaum and took up a job with a start-up software company in Mumbai and then gravitated towards Bangalore. I guess the rest is history – he married Shubha, continued to play the guitar and became an icon of the Open Source movement.

The one thing that he needed from the old man – his approval – was the one thing he did not get. When he finally did, it was too late. More than twelve years later, it fell on me to pass on to him a message from our father, who died a few months later: “Tell Atul that I am very proud of him.” I was at Atul’s house in Bangalore when I mentioned it to him, and I remember him blinking at me for a long, silent moment. Then he shrugged and went back to work on his Mac. The subject was never opened again.

Atul did come down to Belgaum to see our father as he lay dying in the ICU, but the old man’s mind had already been taken out by a massive stroke. I have no idea if the fact that his long-estranged eldest son was standing there at his bedside registered at all. I do hope that Atul experienced a small measure of healing in that brief time.

As for me, I was and still am immensely proud of what Atul did in his lifetime. I won’t pretend to understand the nitty-gritties of his work – I don’t. But sometimes, people mistook me for him at airports and in hotel lounges. Many people, on hearing my name, would ask me if I was related to Atul Chitnis. And I would tell them proudly that he was my brother…

I am almost done, and I guess whatever I have written here is a bit disjointed. I’m sorry about that, but my mind is still slightly unhinged by Atul’s death. Also, you may wonder what point I am trying to make here. Am I blaming our father for the unrelenting hardness that Atul was known for? To some extent, yes.

I tackled our father in a very different way – not very original, but effective. Atul met him head on – he gave him the middle finger and waited till he could take charge of his own life. He did that much sooner than I did. But he did not walk away a free man. The specter of not being good enough, for not meeting expectations, haunted both of us. When it came to our father, our childhood was defined by brutality and inhuman pressure to perform. You may feel that men should be able to outgrow that – and they do, but in their own ways. But there is ALWAYS a residual effect.

Everyone has their own heroes in life. I guess Atul’s was Steve Jobs – mine is John Rambo. And even though I know Rambo is a fictitious character, I relate to some things he said:

“Nothing is over! Nothing!! You just don’t turn it off!”.

No, you can’t turn it off. You deal with it – in whatever way is available to you, whatever way you know, or it will poison the rest of your life.

“Live for nothing – or die for something!”

Atul lived for Open Source. He may not have died for it, but he lived for it. Please remember him that way, even if you forget everything else about him.

rambo

As I mentioned, it takes informed guidance and personal dedication to healing from such wounds if one is to overcome them. Atul had no time or patience for such stuff. He had better things to do – and one of the reasons why so much has been written about him is that he was pretty damned good at what he did.

The End

Watching Atul suffer was horrible. He knew what was coming, but he refused to accept that all possible medical avenues had been explored – and that somehow contributed to his suffering. This was a man who loved life, but had not taken the necessary steps to safeguard it. Everything that was attempted after the diagnosis of stage 4 colonorectal cancer was basically futile damage control – locking the stable after the horse had run away.

There were only two times in my entire life when I had the balls to tell him that I love him. The first time was just after the diagnosis, and I said it in the fleeting, offhand way that men tend to use when they are expressing deep sentiments. The second and last time was when he was unconscious in his own ICU bed, breathing artificially through a respirator – a couple of hours before he died. I don’t know whether he heard me.

Somehow, I hope he didn’t, if you can dig it. But I want to say it once more – and I figure that if any part of Atul is still around, it just HAS to be online.

3I love you, bro. I thank God that your suffering is over and curse Him for taking you in the first place. I miss you so very, very much…

 

 

40 thoughts on “My Brother Atul Chitnis (1962-2013)

  1. Arun, must say, you may not be as great /good or whatever else you have written about Atul(he was one of his kind, no doubt) , but from what I read here, you come to me as an honest, kind and a very down-to-earth individual who is as good or perhaps even better than so many I know, a man with a very truthful, kind and warm disposition. It takes a lot of courage to communicate personal happenings as they are/were and you have penned the chronology as it has gone past!! Kudos to that.
    Hope you recover from this shock soon and will pray that you have a great life too!!
    Wishing you life’s best!!!Regards,
    I sincerely

    • Thank you, Archana. My life does not require me to be known for what I do – just the opposite, in fact. I make a living out making others look good. But without widespread awareness about who he was and what he was doing, Atul would not have managed as much as he did. I am proud that he was my brother.

  2. Sir Chitnis, a fantastic piece about Atul, whom I never met but googled and read of when you spoke about him during our various trips to that developer in Pune ( name escapes me).

    Your article abt him and your life is sheer genius in prose.

    Vivek

  3. Hi Arun
    I have known Atul for over 6 years now , Used to be on the same platform/ panel discussion talking about open source and future of technology. I had to do extra homework when i had to tackle him on the panel and used to rehearse the question and probably used to anticipate his reaction to my question and always planned a justification for that. This man had conviction and knew his subject well.

    I feel really sad for him and his family . After reading your writeup I will be making conscious effort to express myself to my family about what i feel for them and say ” I Love you ” without feeling extra shy about why i am expressing this feeling being a man. My sympathies and condolences are with Atuls family. Please take care
    Regards
    Sunil Rao

  4. Thanks for writing this.

    Just wanted to point out that – I believe that Atul was more of a products guy than open source. As in Products > open source.

    Proof is in his fanatical defense of Apple.

    Still loved what you wrote.

    +Aivalli (that is what he remembered me by! his pronunciation iVaallY, I am missing that)

  5. Arun, this is is a brilliant article. I was very proud to be able to say that Atul was my friend. He was someone I always looked up to, and I still find myself thinking “what would Atul do or say in this situation”. I had met your mom when I was in Berlin, she is such a wonderful lady. My heart goes out to her, and you & your family.

  6. Being an proud Belgaumite and one who has seen your father’s life story here, its great to read your post with so much clarity & intensity.
    God bless. ..
    RIP Atul.

    Take care.

  7. Hi Arun

    That is one straight from the heart post. I knew Atul through Twitter and followed his posts religiously. I have seen him argue a point to the end..

    May his soul RIP and God give you all the strength you need to get through these times.

    Aarti

  8. A very touching piece. All I have to say is that he was a great man. Never knew him personally but only interacted with him a couple of times on twitter. I still can’t believe he is not with us anymore. Still see him timeline sometimes in anticipation that he will rise and start writing about things he loved the most. RIP Atul. :-(

  9. Such a beautiful and touching eulogy to Atul ,someone so was truly out of this world brilliant. It was hard to read it without getting teary eyed. Thank you for sharing these heartfelt thoughts.

  10. Thanks for such a warm, unpretentious , no window dressing , straight from the heart piece . It is not ‘disjointed’ but very well written indeed!

  11. I didn’t know Atul,but I sure want to get to know you better,while we have the opportunity,you brought tears to my heart Arun. Take care. and God Bless.

  12. Dear Mr.Arun
    My heartfelt condolences to your family. Though I never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Atul personally, I have had his ‘darshan’ at some of the airports. Man, I feel so immensely proud of him. I have always made it a point to tell my friends & colleagues in the industry of his work.
    God bless his soul.

  13. Thank you for reading this and sharing your thoughts, everyone. I thought I’d mention something about that photo with the two of us on the donkey. I found it at our old neighbors’ house when I visited Hamburg in 2008. When I posted it on our private online family album, Atul commented – “The donkey later defected to America and went on to become the US president” (this was during the Bush administration, and Atul was NOT a fan)

  14. Arun,
    Thanks a lot for sharing these intense feelings with us.
    We (Dr.Natus,from Belgaum)know u and your family since decades..
    Best wishes always…

  15. Dear Arun

    It is sad to note the sad demise of Atul, and after having read the article,and having spent some of our few childhood days together it is saddening to hear about his demise. I can only say that Atul’s passing away has definitely left a void in your life and the pain can only be felt by you and i am sure will take a long long to heal ,but the memories shall always remain etched. MAY GOD GRANT HIM PEACE AND LET HIM REST WELL. A LIFE WELL ACCOPLISHED.

  16. Dear Arun
    when the going gets tough the tough get going you forgot to mention bruce lee nd all the martial arts book you used to have which u used to share with me other wise i would not i known

    As for ATUL he was a ROCKSTAR AND WILL ALWAYS BE he introduced me to the Beatles nd all other singers i cannot forget those days you into martial arts and the punching bag tied to your garage and Atul into his music ,had my first pizza at your house which your mother made
    Be strong Arun would have gone on and on about this but am to emotional to write any thing remembering about those days in Belgaum and thinking Atul has left us RIP Atul

  17. Dear Arun, after a long time I am reading something written by you. We have many similar photographs and also a similar background and history. We both lost a brother when Atul died . Since our parents knew each other before we 4 brothers were born. I feel so much closer to you after reading this eulogy and factfile. Yes , our fathers formed us but at some stage we have to take it into our hands and you are presently doing this amazingly well. As you say your dad was the star and so was Atul. But I genuinely feel that both you and your mom are this too in your own right as you have beaten tremendous odds and you know it. Our whole family is deeply effected by Atul’s passing away . As we agreed lets keep in closer touch. I know you do not like Mumbai but places do not matter when we meet. Let’s do it soon.

  18. Touching indeed…
    I still can’t believe Atul is not with us anymore…I used to regularly follow him on twitter(as Apple fan). And when I read that we have a common connection i.e. Belgaum, I was even more shocked and saddened. My heartfelt condolences..
    RIP Atul !!!
    and may God give strength to Shubhangi and you all in the family to bear grief of his untimely departure…

  19. Arun,

    My condolences and RIP Atul.

    Excellent window into the growing up years of Atul.and you. Yes, he used to be caustic and blatant when he was much younger. I must say that he consciously reduced the bite and remained frank. The intention was never to deliver a punch or hurt (as I understood) but to initiate thought and elevate. He wouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge a good, smart person who could think and was well informed. With friends though, no one was spared!

    Atul was a foodie too. I wish someone could write about that side of him and his opinions. For a long time, a feast for us meant fried chicken and salad. And then, pizzas came into India and we would feast on pizzas. Later, at larger gatherings, it was biriyani.

    I would urge you to write more about him, when you can.

    Gopi
    #ggarge

  20. Dear Arun,
    I am from Belgaum. Atul initiated me into computers somewhere around 1987-1988.
    Atul installed for me and trained me to use a “Wipro” software and I was comfortable using it for close to 15 years when Y2K issues rendered it obsolete.
    My memories of Atul revolve around this engagement and the only word that always rang in my mind about Atul was “Simply Brilliant”.
    Although I knew your father as a very senior industrialist, I met him only two times.
    The first time, when I was a very young engineer at Cummins India in Pune and I had the courage to show a mistake in the Hydraulic system supplied by Standard Hydraulics. Your father was very keen to meet somebody who had pointed out the design error.
    Many years Later- The same Wipro Software that Atul had given me was used in your Father’s organizations. Atul had already made me an expert and somehow I was called by your mother to sort out the problems in Standard Hydraulics.
    The problem was beyond my capacity and I told your father that the problem was almost un-solvable (Wipro had stopped supporting the software by then, it must be year 2002) and the only person who can help is his very own son Atul. (Your mother was also present at the meeting).
    Your father said in Marathi – “You know Sanjeev, there is always darkness below the Lamp (Panati to be precise)”.
    Until I read your article here, I had no reason to understand his words.
    I believe that your Father was “Father of Hydraulics” in Belgaum. I believe that today’s Hydraulic Industry scenario should be grateful to your father.
    I will always be grateful to Atul for what he did for me and I feel very sad that “Simply Brilliant” Atul is no more amongst us.

  21. Arun,

    Thank you for sharing this deeply personal story. Being a younger brother like you, your story resonates with me.

    Atul and I were friends (in a way). I am very sorry for your family’s loss.

  22. Arun: what a beautiful, beautiful piece. You should submit your essays about fathers and sons to publications. I so enjoyed reading this even though I am not an Open Source person. The demons that torment us psychologically– everyone has it.

  23. Arun — This brought tears to my eyes. This is such a loving and personal tribute to Atul as I have never read.

    I share a few things with Atul, including his first name, and a passion for things he did and stood for. Very similar musical tastes, love of guitar, open source, technology, and the like. Ever since I heard about one Atul Chitnis and his BBS (way back in the early ’90s when I was in Bangalore), I was curious to find out more about him, if nothing else, then to thank him for starting the ‘net revolution in India. I was in a similar area – managing networks for a very large indian outsourcing giant, and I felt I could learn from him. But it wasn’t to be. A couple of years ago or so in early 2012 during my visit to Bangalore I told him I would love to meet him, and he said, Come over to my house. I was happy that he had acknowledged it. And now I’m very sad that I just couldn’t meet him and discuss Pink Floyd, Apple, technology over coffee, etc.

    I can totally relate to your thoughts about Father; I am/have been in a similar boat, which I have managed to navigate somehow. But always wonder if that’s enough.

    I was truly shocked to hear about Atul’s sudden demise, as I fully expected him to recover, not knowing the extent of the cancer. My other regret – not being able to see him earlier this year.

    Your tribute to Atul is very personal and touching. Thank you for writing it. I just wanted to let you know that Atul touched my life, too, in many ways. I will also miss him terribly.

    My deepest condolences to you and Atul’s family.

  24. I read this, was very moved by it, and see no words that I can meaningfully add to it, except, “thank you”.

  25. Pingback: Atul Chitnis, RIP « vgrass.de

  26. Hi Mr. Chitnis,
    Sorry to hear about your loss. Pls accept my deepest condolences.
    May God give you strength and courage to bear this.
    Regards,
    Sujeet Kr Jha, Realty Plus

  27. Arun,

    I read your piece… around father’s day.

    I will remember this for the entire year and possibly many years to come – for the depth, the honesty, for the conclusions I draw as a father, but MOST importantly, for the person you wrote about. A force of nature called Atul Chitnis.

    I am his cousin. One of the tens that he inherited from his marriage with ‘that charming girl Shubha Deshpande’.

    Atul was a mid-generationer between me and my father. Exactly 13 years older than me and 13 younger than my father. And he had impressed us both. My father would never stop raving about the strength of his character. How he defied his father, gave up the life of riches and started out on his own. In my teens, Atul was on par with the revolutionary heroes I was used to read about. Amongst all this talk of his ‘open source warrior’ image I also remember him as the most romantic guy. His love for shubha didi, the way he romanced her all through his life, its stuff that could give Karan Johar’s script writers a couple ideas.

    RIP, Atul.

  28. Arun,

    This is a beautiful piece of writing. Brave expression is always moving, more so it immortalizes the essence of a person you wished to tell the story of. thank you for sharing, Moved.

    May the force be with you, as good Jedi Knights say.

    Be well.

    Dhanu Kandappah

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