Gulf Times: Anirban, a legend of his times and beyond
Originally published in Gulf Times, August 19, 2022 as “Anirban, A Legend Of His Times And Beyond
He overcame challenges and became a role model himself, impacting the lives of many people in Qatar and beyond. Now, he leaves behind a legacy that is lasting, inspiring and truly remarkable.
Anirban Lahiri, an Indian expatriate and a long-time resident of Qatar, passed away in Doha recently, due to health complications. He is survived by mother Binita and brother Arvind.
Condolences and rich tributes poured in from friends, colleagues, officials and the institutions where Anirban studied and worked, remembering him as a visionary and a person who worked tirelessly to harness the power of technology to improve the lives of people – particularly those with disabilities.
Anirban, born in 1983, had spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that causes muscle damage and weakness. But this did not deter him; rather, it inspired and motivated him to work towards finding ways to help others with special needs. He was a driving force behind the creation of Mada – Qatar Assistive Technology Center. Mada was founded in 2010 as an initiative that aims at promoting digital inclusion and building a technology-based community that meets the needs of persons with functional limitations, persons with disabilities and the elderly in Qatar.
Anirban remained a key figure in Mada, conducting research and doing exemplary work in the field of assistive technology. Expressing condolences, Mada said in a statement on Twitter: ‘The Mada Family extends the heartfelt and deepest condolences for the sad passing away of our colleague, Anirban Lahiri. May Allah comfort him and support his family. ‘Anirban was the soul of Mada. He inspired us to always think big. He was a visionary that believed in the power of technology to change people’s lives for the better. Anirban was more than a colleague. He was a big brother. He supported us in our professional and personal lives in ways that will be irreplaceable,’ Mada said.
‘Anirban was a brilliant technologist that worked from his heart and we always looked up to him. He was a friend, a brother and a mentor.’
It continued, ‘You will always be remembered for the impact you left. It all started from your passion to improve the lives of people with disabilities. You taught us a lot and your great impact will never be forgotten. Rest in peace.’
Anirban had earlier studied in Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q). The alma mater paid its tribute, saying: ‘As part of CMU-Q’s first class, Anirban was an integral member of the community. His inspiring work at Mada Center impacted many & created change that has improved the lives of people in Qatar & beyond. We extend our sincerest sympathies to Anirban’s family & loved ones.’
Her Excellency Dr Hessa bint Sultan al-Jaber, who has held a number of key positions over the years, including chairperson of Es’hailSat – the Qatar Satellite Company and malomatia – a leading provider of professional technology services and solutions, as well as former Minister of Information and Communications Technology, paid a tribute to Anirban on LinkedIn.
‘In March of 2006, a talented young man came to my office and shared his concerns about the challenges people with disabilities face in our region. This young man didn’t just come to my office to explore; he came with a dream to make a difference,’ she recalled. ‘Anirban had heard about ictQATAR’s plan to connect people with disabilities to technologies that enrich their lives. He shared his dream to create a center that would help to make access to ICT technologies and the knowledge economy a fundamental right for people with disabilities. ‘Working hard and persistent in achieving this dream, along with a talented team from ictQATAR and other local organizations, he turned his dream into reality. He helped shape the strategy, engaged partners, and localised the technologies. He helped create Mada, a center that provides new hope to people with disabilities.’
She quoted legendary American basketball player Michael Jordan as saying: ‘You’re trying to achieve, there will be roadblocks. I’ve had them; everybody has had them. But obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.’ ‘Anirban had climbed many, many walls. I am sure that many of you have been touched by him, and I am one. He will be missed,’ Dr al-Jaber said.
Ahmed Habib, a former colleague who had worked in Mada for several years, said on LinkedIn: ‘Anirban Lahiri and I worked together for over a decade to set up the region’s first assistive technology center. His brilliance, sense of humor and mischievous spirit quickly elevated him from a colleague to a friend, and then to a brother. ‘In many ways, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. His insistence to start a project that would connect disabled people to digital content is what eventually brought me out to Doha from Toronto. But his contributions to my growth were much more widely felt in other ways. ‘Anirban was a visionary. He taught me so much about building something meaningful. He was my comrade. His work impacted the lives of countless people and put in motion a series of changes that have made the lives of disabled people in Qatar and beyond much more accessible. With him gone, we will all miss that spark he would ignite wherever he went. Rest in strength ‘habibi’. Love you.’
Ireland-based university lecturer Bryan Boyle recalled, ‘Anirban certainly was one-of-a-kind! Incredibly bright, wonderfully talented, quick-witted and mercilessly funny – working alongside him for five years were some of the best times I’ve ever had! By sheer force of personality he made a world full of barriers accessible both for himself and for countless others!’
Howaida Nadim, a digital communications advocate and strategist, said: ‘May his pure soul rest in peace. His wit and everlasting smile were an inspiration to all of us and brought hope to his colleagues. True – Mada Center was one of his transforming ideas and he worked hard to see it happen. Rest in peace my friend Anirban Lahiri – you will be missed but your memory will be treasured forever.’
One can get an idea of Anirban’s work and contribution to his field from this old write-up on the Carnegie Mellon University website, titled ‘Empowering Technology’: ‘Anirban Lahiri faced a major challenge as a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar — spinal muscular atrophy type 2, an inherited disease that causes muscle damage and weakness. ‘But he not only utilized specialized technology to earn a computer science degree, he now plays an integral role in helping others with special needs.’
Anirban was a member of the first class (CS 2008) to graduate from Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), where he realized it was difficult to use a conventional computer keyboard with his limited dexterity. He would get fatigued and couldn’t reach all the keys. He could use a mouse, so he paired it with software that creates a keyboard on the screen, using his mouse to click the characters.
In 2008, a few months after he graduated, Dr al-Jaber asked Anirban to join a panel of experts who were advising the government on how to help disabled people access life-changing technologies. It was in this group that Anirban first conceptualised Mada — a ‘one-stop shop’ connecting people with special needs to the latest technologies and advocating for improved services. With the support of Qatar’s Supreme Council for Information and Communication Technology (ictQATAR), Mada opened in June 2010.
‘As Mada’s senior assistive technology specialist, Anirban helps more than 600 people a year find the right technologies to reach their goals. One of his clients, a 15-year-old girl with cerebral palsy who was in a wheelchair and had communication impairments, sticks out in his mind. ‘She wanted to be able to effectively express herself and communicate with others. We set her up with a Windows-based tablet PC installed with a text-to-speech software that spoke out the words and sentences she typed,’ he said. His team also set up an environmental control module controlled through her tablet PC that allowed her to operate any device that came with an infrared remote control. ‘Her joy of being empowered with the ability to independently communicate and perform tasks previously unthought of seemed priceless,’ he said.
It is with little wonder that wheelchair-bound Anirban received a standing ovation at his graduation. And leading the audience was none other than His Highness the Father Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who was at that time the Amir of Qatar. From colleagues and friends to officials and top dignitaries – he earned the admiration, respect and support of all, and his contributions shall be remembered long after he is gone.