The Futurist Technologist

Khushwant Singh

Gurdeep Singh Pall Corporate Vice President, Business AI, Microsoft Corp.

However, in spite of his yearning, Gurdeep almost ended up chasing the predictable. He appeared in the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam while still in class eleven, which he cleared. He also cleared the medical, but just weeks before he was to join the NDA an inner calling held him back from donning the olive.

‘There was something inside me that kept telling me that this was not what I was meant for,’ says Gurdeep to me while sharing this life-altering decision. He vividly remembers telling his dad ‘that you know what, I think I’m not joining the army.’

This abrupt decision came as a shocker to his father, who thought his son would carry forward his military legacy. His father persuaded him with all his might by playing the emotional card of how he visualized his son proudly wearing his medals and honors on the right side of his chest, a privilege the military gave to the children of army veterans. A determined Gurdeep did not cave in and they reached a compromise: he promised his father that if within one year of passing his twelfth he didn’t find a career for himself he would re-appear for the NDA. His father agreed, albeit reluctantly with a somewhat nervous Gurdeep wondering what he would do next.

Computers were something that had always fascinated Gurdeep and it was a burgeoning career. He sat for, and cleared, the Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra, Ranchi entrance exam and joined the computer engineering course in 1983 to pursue a bachelor in engineering.

The going was absolutely wonderful in Mesra, and everything was unfolding as per plan. He loved the college atmosphere and was impressed with the philanthropy of the Birla family that had set up such a formidable institute of excellence beautifully sprawling across undulating hills near Ranchi. Computer science was now beginning to fascinate Gurdeep and he dreamt of a career in this field.

October–November 1984

Soon the calendar turned to the 31st of October 1984. Gurdeep had been in Delhi for Diwali holidays and had just boarded the train back for Ranchi the same afternoon. The morning had witnessed the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Her two Sikh bodyguards had shot her, and anger was building up against the Sikhs, which the polity of the day was ready to exploit for votes.

Gurdeep, who had no idea about the events of the morning, except that he saw several police barricades while on his way to New Delhi Railway station, learned about her shooting through a radio broadcast only after boarding the train.

The train soon reached Kanpur, and the journey started getting bloody hereon. Riots had broken out, and rioters in huge droves were looking out for Sikhs and killing them in any barbaric way they could imagine. Gurdeep saw mobs entering the train and dragging out Sikhs, killing them and throwing their blood-soaked bodies back on the train. Gurdeep, sporting a turban, could be their target anytime as the journey to Ranchi was long. What saved him from imminent death was the fact that there were over hundred non-Sikh BIT students traveling with him. They hid Gurdeep and protected him from the mobs. This traumatic incident was to change Gurdeep’s life forever. So impacted was he with it, that a flight instinct kicked in cantered around the notion that he could not be safe in India anymore. ‘My whole chemistry changed and I became singularly focused on the idea of working and living outside of India.’

Not only for Gurdeep, it was a life altering experiences for many others as well. ‘Many remained depressed for months while one student who witnessed the killings, left the college for a year to be treated for psychological trauma,’ says Gurdeep, reflecting on his close shave with death. ‘In fact, till the time I didn’t reach Ranchi my parents believed I’d been killed on the train.’ As the story goes, Gurdeep’s father had sought help from nearby army units to secure Gurdeep. However, when they could not find him on the train at various stations since he was hiding, it was presumed he had been killed along with thousands who lost their lives at that darkest moment of India’s post-independence history.

Khushwant Singh
  • Manpreet Singh