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


Greatbong said...

"Rest, as they say, is all about how you define the gap between yourself and Mr Weakest Link in the annual review."

How very true. With regards to KNC, he used to teach our E Mech in first semester and I remember us pestering him to give us "off" because of freshers the "next day" as we needed to prepare (I had written a skit). I may have forgotten everything about Emech but I do remember what KNC said, while refusing to give the class "off":

"You will do this class *and* you will prepare for the skit. Both have to be done---you should not sacrifice one for the other. Remember that if you really care for something, there *always* is time for it.

Needless to say we were pissed off then but now, older and fatter, I realize the wisdom in those words of advice.

nilendu said...

@GB -

KNC truly was a personality.

In fact, I found most of JU teachers underrated. We did have many excellent teachers -- and support staff too. What impresses me till date, like yourself, is most of them made sense.

Many did not even bother about the so-called curricula and side-stepped it to offer a complete learning in keeping with the "industry". I actually enjoyed the CAD / CAM lab - and dreamed that someday I would make a superstar draftsman. I am thankful I am not, but the particular teacher was inspiring.

I guess most good educational institutions are just as good as its teachers. The fact that ours was, and is, one of the very best is a toast to its teaching community.

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

Do I have to remind you every week to write the next instalment?
This is becoming like that 'crime thamanor' design viva...

And one more thing, most of our teaching staff were crap. Dunno why you got this sudden burst of anti-cynicism?
There were very few good ones and we survive because of them.

nilendu said...


I am just as scared as an astronaut who's had a jolt in the spaceship and is not particularly liked by folks at NASA in such matters. One of my recurring nightmares has been about a couple of "supple" papers still lurking around in the dark corners of KMR building like Lady Macbeth's ghost, and I gotta show all the due respects to "authority".

Also you of all people know no matter what a nasty rabble-rouser I may be sounding like, I shit in my pants before taking on the "authority".