Friday, October 26, 2007

Ten Years I am Living Next Door - Part 3

The Teachers

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and your profession as fisherman is at high risk!

- Old Jungle Proverb

Once P K Banerjee came to our school's annual sports as the 'Chief Guest'. I was thirteen years old. After two long days of watching people who are bigger than me winning, we all attended the prize distribution ceremony. PK started his Chief Guest speech around 3:30. After two decades, I remember Platini was not just a footballer, he was Napoleon - his free kick was not just a kick at a ball but a try to salvage the pride of a hurt nation by taking its bravest people across an icy Alps during harsh winter. Lothar Mattheus was no less than representing Goethe, and Charlemagne too. There was a reference to Carpathian Mountains, as PK raised his hands to give us an idea of the heights of the range, and then to brush away beads of sweat from his unusually large forehead. I don't anymore remember why - but the hardships in the lives of Mongolian nomad; Mesozoic era formations; Altamira cave; Wright Brothers' first flight and the actual yardage it flew before crashing -- all were mentioned. After he finished, sun was well set. My blood was boiling - it was as if someone has put some Codeine in a very strong brew of fresh coffee and made a squirrel drink it. I did not know what, but as he finished all I wanted to go out and fight someone. I did not care why, I did not care who, I did not even care how. But I had to take all these energy away from my little synaptic joints as soon as I could. For next 2 minutes and half, I could even have taken Daley Thompson (whose breakfast menu -- and severe childhood struggle -- too was elaborately described by PK) in Decathlon.

But about three minutes after he finished, I felt dizzy and extremely weak, and a bit nauseous too. All that free adrenaline in my system - without finding any vent, and the fact that I had just an Orange, shared with 3 others, in the last 6 hours, made me almost sick. It was very hallucinogenic however. From that day till now, I carefully 'mute' the TV set as soon as PK shows up to analyze a football match -- and I try my best to avoid people who are otherwise known as good teachers.

If you are a hiring manager, and want to hire someone who can do "out of the box thinking" - just try to find out how many classes did he/she attend in his first year of Engineering. The lesser, the better. On the other hand, if you are running a perfectly running business and don't want to risk it -- get someone who not only attended all, but took copious notes even in tangential subjects like "Sociology".

When we were in second year though, and this is why I started off with PK, we had a teacher who shared the same initials with him. Even the loquaciousness was very comparable. For example, when he regularly showed up at least 2 hours late in those 4 hour long "Engineering Drawing" classes, he used to launch a tirade against our lazy ideas and lack of initiative as we were just waiting for him and did not "design" something in that free thinking time we had. Soon the talk will peep into the design "vault" of Maruti and how - like Coca Cola - formula, earth shattering designs for components like Maruti cam shafts and an industry unusual 3/32" bolts were kept secret from nosy competitors. Venkat, a gawky fellow like most of us those days, would get his face so far away from his neck hearing these and other conspiracy and Engineering espionage stories, we were scared that Prabhu Deva may soon come there and kick his only serious competitor's ass!

There was another teacher, one of the very few who used to wear a belt *and* tuck his shirts inside *and* shave regularly, who once tried to demonstrate the "welding" process.

"And as you start welding, you will hear ...a long gap to try to find the English equivalent of the sound ...phot phot phot".

The same teacher had an unusual tactic in Viva. He would get two of the students to appear at the same time and let one student ask another question. The question should not be easy (then the questioner loses points), but if it cannot be replied the answerer loses. Diptakirti and I were roll-joined twins. His was 93094 and mine was 93093. So, I had to ask Dipta a question on Metallography. One of the subjects I doubt he knew existed the day before!

No matter how good a friend he were, there were serious numbers at stake. Numbers that could make the huge difference between a D and a C at the end of the semester. But I could not have offended him either - he won't lend me his mother's collection of bound early 70's volumes of Stardust (till then only promised, not delivered) in that case! So I asked him "What are the axes defining Carbon Steel's strength on a two-dimensional Carbon-Temperature plane?"

He could answer. Plus cool phrases like "Carbon Steel", "axes", "two dimensional plane" were mentioned in front of this Anglophile at large - and I too got "Alpha Double Plus"!

I never understood why, but teachers' initials would always be Bangla-fied, i.e., the teacher would get the name as the Bengali word when the initials are pronounced together. Thus, GD would be "gada", MM would be "mama" , and TKS would be a kiddish "tokas". The one known as "konchee" (a thin stick) was an amazing example how even such a random stuff could often produce something so topically relevant! He was rumored to have amazing depth of knowledge, but we were not sure he could carry his umbrella. As it always happens with people whom you need to inflate 30 inches, at least, in every dimension to walk on the ramp -- he was amazingly brave, risk-taking and full of positive attitudes. Not a single student had the audacity of asking him to clarify something again.

There were non-departmental teachers in the first couple of years - trying to put sense to us on subjects as important as English, 3 papers of Physics, 5 of Maths, Electronics, Electrical, Sociology and Economics too! People were least bothered with "Fluid Mechanics" taught by 'baba' (whose son was our senior, incidentally) , so one can easily imagine the fate of these peripheral subjects.

However, one of the Maths papers was taught by an exchange professor (Indian) who used to teach in some US Engineering College. She once casually told her daughter was 16. That's it - not a word more, not a word less. Hearing that bit only, one guy - cannot name, currently married with kids - not only started attending her classes, but started seating in the front bench, take notes, ask stupid interrupting questions hoping one of it would impress her, and even asking her for as ridiculous advice as what book to 'consult' apart from the - he mentioned the 3 books he could find in departmental library in a hurried search! He was in deep love with the Maths Madam's 16 year old daughter. His first one.

The same guy, was a literal genius of copying in exams (a deservedly separate topic) and in one occasion actually shaved just one of his legs - all the way down from the right knee - so as to transcribe some formula and stuff on his shaved n' Borolene-d skin. He later clarified it was not that he did not have time to shave both the legs, but he just did not have enough material to copy on.

One teacher, however, we all loved and faux-feared at the same time. He remembered the roll numbers, class test results, and other important details like what brand of Cigarette one smoked for all students for the past 13 years he had been teaching there! He also was a genuinely nice person who always liked his students *but* never showed any of it. Each of his classes would start and possibly end with dire threats like "In this Semester, Executive Council has asked us to take real test of your grasp of Machine Design. Last time we did it 73 people flunked and they never ever got any job anywhere. Everyone from L&T to Sriram Motors had a list, and these guys would never get a job in their life"....The only hope, of course, was to attend his classes and take notes.

There were even more ridiculous threats from him, like "next class test will be a spot, undeclared test". Yeah, right. Last we knew, we got class tests postponed that were scheduled months ahead for reasons as strong as it's too warm outside, someone's bus was running late, the building's fuse has just failed, there were two other class tests that day that we need time to postpone and so cannot really take this test.

If there was one single cause in my life that I unequivocally supported over a reasonable period of time, it is - efficiency is more important than conforming to discipline. The second one was, postponing a class test is ALWAYS worth it.

Another teacher once visited Canada to attend some technical conference and evidently was quite proud of it. One of us, when failing to answer even the simplest of the questions in a Viva, randomly brought up the lack of scope of Engineering work in India, compared to, say, Canada. Next 17 people that day all got "A" and were pleasantly surprised!

Another one was rumored to have designed the nose-tip for the INSAT series of Rockets. As always, the nose-tip was the most important design element of the whole package and a Bengali could never stoop down so low to work on the lesser important stuff like the heat insulators bla bla.

Somewhere else, while teaching "Engineering Mechanics" to Electronics' folks, our Head of the Dept was apparently pissed off at the raucous they were trying to make, but failed miserably for lack of man-power. Having witnessed such a sad case of erectile dysfunction, he apparently mouthed some really nasty, choicest Bengali cuss words that every one in the class room could hear. There was a stunned silence in the royal, sophisticated fourth floor classroom of Electronics department hearing all these. Words, and behavior, like these were alien to them. Not to us. When other departments finished the only mandatory "fitting" lab - where one has to build a T-joint with cheap wood pieces, we still had 17 more left where temperatures of burning metals could often exceed 500 degrees. Only other "labs" from rest of the departments had either chemicals or computers with as much RAM as 8MB. The main mechanical lab had, and still do, a Wesson lathe machine - always reverently garlanded on the day of Viswakarma Puja. Try that with your jar of Sulphuric Acid, Chemical!

Every time we meet we also talk about the one who used to carry 9 ball point pents tucked to his pink shirt's pocket. He poked a lot of fun at the "10,000 Rs jobs in AC rooms" and tried ridiculing the idea of things like being able to speak English, or read business section in dailies. Last time I checked, no one among us was drilling lathe.

I personally feel a teacher's duty in the mid-level professional education is to evoke a subtle sense of fear and inculcate correct quantification of real tasks among the students. JU teachers failed at the former, but succeeded with "Alpha Double Plus" with the later. Now I realize those last minute hurriedly copied, but copied well in order to pass, lab sheets and the ability to precisely quantify that a solid stack of 33 pages, no more and no less, of both-sided photocopied notes is all I would have to cover at one night to pass tomorrow's exam - are all the skills from my college that I, or most, need for any job.

Fear is important some bozo could get seriously eff-ed up to try to draw hero worship from his peers. Precisely, and minimally, quantifying the "to do" list -- as much possibly done by others -- required to not fail at something is an absolute and primal skill. That's what pretty much 99% or more would do later to get an above average annual raise and a good bonus. For skeptics, this is nothing new. Most important invention of mankind could very well be the wheel, but the very fact that some wise guy in a cave had encouraged some beefed up stupids to fight Woolly Mammoths and Sabre-toothed Tigers actually made that invention possible. Not failing at anything is way more important than anything else, including getting straight A's throughout. Ask an Engineering student why.

Today, when confronted with tightest deadlines - I always can smile and say "Yeah, fine with me. It will easily be done!". In corporate, ALWAYS somewhere else, someone else is stupid enough to fail before others. One just has to find the weakest link in the chain and position oneself just a tad higher than that. Rest, as they say, is all about how you define the gap between yourself and Mr Weakest Link in the annual review. After the initial positioning, it's all about creating perceptions. Looking back, education at JU was perfectly successful in imparting all these supreme life-lessons. Totally unprepared, as slowly walking to the department building with a hangover *and* an empty stomach, with no money left to buy used copies of"Debonair", all but one of us knew that nothing that we are unprepared for would be done today. We were better than the worst, and in Engineering, as well as in real life, that very valuable position itself is sufficient to live well. That is assuming you write your annual reports with care.

Next - The Language

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ten Years I am Living Next Door - Part 2

Second Round at The Game

There were three logical entrances to the Engineering Faculty. One was near the station - people who came in train or the ones who would return from 'that' shanty after buying funny things to smoke would enter from here. "8B" entrance - named after, like many other things, a state-run bus terminus opposite - that would take one in next to the slightly deserted Electrical building. Then there was the "middle" entrance - leading straight to the Main Library building and thus, used only during Sanskriti, TechFair or to go out to eat "Jhaal Muri" from the vendor just outside the gate. His Jhaal Muri had best of the breed stuff, but clearly, like most Bengalis, he severely lacked any business sense judging by his location.

Compare him to Rajinder, the phuchkawallah near Dakshinapon, and you will understand why. Rajinder is Calcutta's 3rd richest phuchkawallah. The guy who seats opposite to Hindustan Sweets in New Alipore is the Laxmi Mittal of the phuchkawallahs. I once saw (ok, heard! But from very reliable source) Sourav Ganguly rushing there with two commandos just the evening before his departure to World Cup in South Africa. The third entrance would also be used by folks who lived in Salt Lake. They would eat a thoNga of Jhaal Muri (Rs 4/-), catch the S-19 (that too would only brake in the least popular bus stands) and refuse to pay the regal fare of Rs 2.20/- to Salt Lake.

No one from Salt Lake ever paid full fare to any of the buses. They would shout, grease, protest, threaten, network and sometimes even plead lack of preparation for the day's exam to avoid paying fare. It not only worked, Salt Lake buses were - and are, till date - the best maintained and most punctually running buses in the entire city. The actual rate from Jadavpur to Salt Lake that our students used to pay "cash" to the conductor was about Rs 1, unless there is a class test or interview on the day. In the later cases, our folks would just refuse to talk to the conductor, be engulfed in photocopied class notes and could even shout at him if he comes and asks for the ticket twice. Folklore was, some of those bus conductors and drivers - who would get a hefty commission too - purchased land next to the New Alipore phuchkawalla.

The fourth entrance to the faculty was as revered as the fourth estate. It was the 'arts' gate'. No one would take that route within five days after a haircut. Otherwise, it was a long walk - but very pleasant, if one could time the entrance to the breaks in the first building. We detested the guys who were always there in front of that building - usually with a rundown guitar hidden behind thick pale of Charminar smoke - the same way Sreesanth detests Andrew Symonds these days.

No matter which entrance you choose to come in to Engineering Faculty, the big green ground will welcome you as the strategic center of the hexagonal shaped faculty. Mechanical Engineering real estates defined two arms of the shape! Electrical another - albeit much shorter; two smaller - but heavier in terms of score - departments Electronics and Comp Sc would define another; another arm was Chemical slightly pushed to the side by a "Staff Canteen" and a mysteriously named KMR building. The last arm would have Nathuda's canteen trying to balance between the SFI-dominated Science Club and blink-and-you-could-miss and very cutesy Metallurgy dept. Nathuda was a portly middle-aged man who never said a thing to anyone that did not have a cash word in it.

-How are you Nathuda?
- Good. But Pepsi is
dos taka. Be careful with the bottle if you are taking it out.

Nathuda's wife - boudi - was rather friendly, and just as much squint as it requires for teenagers to not be 'too cool' with her. In mid-90s, probably to curb on smoking, Reserve Bank of India was not printing any more 2 rupee bills. Gresham's law postulates how bad money drives good money out of circulation. What he missed was - bad money drives *everything* out. The poor Rs 2 bills mandated we were never lending money to our friends; not paying for anyone else's Thums Up even after his sincerest promise to pay back; we were even trying to buy full beer bottles with a stack of Rs 2. "Black Label" was Rs. 36. Still, the bad currency was probably good business for the waiters at Olypub since every patron was desperate to get rid of it. However, I remember once I left the elderly one with a few Rs 2 bills that even the populace at the nearby Park Street old cemetery would not accept anymore!

So, once someone was paying for the famous G-4 (burger named so in the canteen) with a couple of Rs 2/ notes. Boudi grudged, and gave the bills back saying -

- Eta cholbe na. (This is no good)

Our man, sorry I cannot name him at such a public forum, shot back -

- Boudi, Nathuda chole gelo aar ei du takar note cholbe na!?

This is as untranslatable as Kapil Dev's English- in his pre-Rapidex days, or the lyrics of "Coffee Houser Sei Adda ta aaj aar nei" - so I am not even trying!

Even though we had a somewhat nicely maintained green field, it was mostly enjoyed by satellite groups to gossip and watch other satellite groups sitting nearby. On the side farthest from Mechanical building one could even see some callows to have the audacity to sit with their 'girl friends'. But when the Auction Bridge mania engulfed us - me particularly - in the 2nd year, even those rarities were given a pass by. Like a true Bengali does with any sport, I turned a blind eye to the Skills and Stamina components and just focussed on the "strategy" bit. To a Bengali- any game, including outdoor ones, is always won by just strategy. Stamina, particularly, - like someone running around the entire field to score a goal - is highly looked down upon as a stupid imbecile element. Hey, he can always produce on nifty bicycle kick to score a goal, why waste energy running?

Thus, a few months ago when East Bengal arranged a benefit match for Parimal Dey (Jangla) footballers recounted his great days by regaling how Jangla-da used to recite Rabindranath just before the Santosh Trophy matches. No one mentioned a word about his training schedules - assuming he had one. However, Subhash Bhowmick mentioned how once Jangla-da replaced someone just a couple of minutes before the final whistle and produced a stunning equalizer against Iran's top club. The very fact that he had not originally taken the field for some stupid ego reason -feigning injury- was conveniently forgotten. We Bengalis do not necessarily look at a sport bi-focally - thus Gopal Bose has remained the opener Bombay lobby could not have afforded to let in lest Gavaskar had to carry drinks. Snehasis Ganguly had always had much more talent than his younger brother. Pele apparently touched Chuni Goswami's feet. Ambar Roy drank scotch for the entire night and then went out to score a century against Bombay. Krishanu Dey spent entire weekend eating luchis, and yet could produce a pass that would ashame a sudden lighting on an empty sky. To a Bengali, success is not as important as almost-success. Even better is a romantic failure that has a touch of art and absolutely no physical attribute to the cause. When I read Pankaj Roy's "Khelte Khelte" first time - I was convinced every West Indian fast bowler thinks first thing in the morning whether he will be Roy's breakfast that day. It was not the time he spent at crease that would be highlighted, it was always that shot that earned a pat. We were designed to live for a moment of glory, not necessarily followed a wild fest of stupid success.

To develop bridge "strategy", I was running to British Council Library and finished at least 6 books on bridge. Very soon I was dispensing free advice to anyone who cared and started analyzing the world series matches that Harsh Bhogle could only dream of! Even after flunking the Engineering Mechanics - I, the second part of the subject was royally ignored. No one - in our group - even talked about the other papers.

When I failed to get into big Cricket teams earlier in school despite my weird - and confusing - bowling action where both hands rotate at the same time, I decided to become a left-hander batsman. Strategy again! How come a left-hander -- good or bad -- be kept outside the team! A left-right combo means - in a Bengali context - the opponent fielders have to switch places more! They would huff and puff after the 3rd ball. Even though my average dropped to lower single-digits, I garnered enough eyeballs. Once, one of my proudest moments on field, I managed to hook some bad delivery for a four. The guy who stood first in Higher Secondary in our batch, clapped and shouted "Good Shot". Getting recognized by the topper was always good, even in strictly non-academic matters.

I like Twenty20 cricket a lot these days. One of the common perceptions is Twenty20 requires much more fitness and agility -- and youth-- than the longer versions of the game. In JU, we proved 'Law of Diminishing Returns' by inventing 5-a-side cricket, that requires no physical stamina whatsoever! This was always played inside a basketball court, with most regular rules applied. Except, if the ball goes outside without a drop within the court - batsman gets out. Ohh, there were no runs if it goes behind -- Nathuda's utensils and dishes were lying nearby, waiting to get washed. Mechanical was undoubtedly the Campus' best 5-a-side team.

But we had two disadvantages.

1. We were like South Africa. There were too many talents around - and we always barfed at the tournament finals ostensibly to "Phy Ed" -- muscular people who were in some annual vocational training to qualify for PT teachers in middle-schools. These people hated to lose in any game, and once they physically beat some of us up after losing a particular mainline Cricket match, we were quite happy to concede a little match here and there to them.

2. I usually captained the side. In one Final I remember, we had to score just about 8 runs or so in last over. A cinch of a task within a basketball court. I looked into the Phy Ed bowler whom I could not see anything behind. I was at my defensive best and was rather looking toward watching "Muhafiz" that weekend with friends. We lost!

Oh! 5-a-side also had a 12 run shot. One had to hit the basket to get 12. To the best of my knowledge, only one member from our team could ever score that feat in the entire campus.

One of our major strengths was Diptakirti as our official umpire. I have never seen a more vile, dishonest, corrupt and blatant subversion of power than his umpiring in those five-a-side games.

Once Avik Roy, our Class Rep and an enormously responsible folk, took me aside and wanted to know why I did not show same level of passion (I clearly remember that word since "passion", to me, was something that's aroused after watching "Lake Consequence" late night at Star TV) in studies or something more useful than the stupid 5-a-side cricket. Again, to a Bengali nothing can be a bigger complement than "You could have done this. Only if you wanted!"

I was so proud that day. It's better to flunk by not studying than to admit you studied your ass hard, and did so! We all tried to be wilder the next day. Because everyone else has a story to tell - if one had no mentionable repartee or exchange with a teacher to recount, one could have seriously been depressed. But in reality, teachers enjoy tremendous power. More so since no one attended most of the classes and there was a significant percentage of total score calculated just from class attendance! This peer pressure made the uninterrupted flow of ridiculous "Viva" stories from Engineering students possible. Viva is mostly one-to-one situation and no one outside the room has a way to know what went on inside. So it's easy to be hero when you come out. People will believe anything from you that they think put the teacher in a tight spot. Thus, every year several Viva legends are born in every Engineering college. Ours was no exception.

Next - The Teachers