“Ma’am, I have two questions, which are related to each other. The first question is divided into two parts, the first of which is related to the third part of the second question and has direct relevance to your assertion that……” by which time I had switched off, staring at my fellow student in rather open astonishment.
Every batch has its talented stalwarts: academics (who are the most uninteresting, particularly those who stand shoulders above the rest), sportsmen, clowns, sleepy-heads, drunks (called ‘bewda’s), late-nighters, gossips, Cassandras (in my batch, the Cassandra was a male though and his eternal byline was ‘Be careful’), dare-devils, the depressed-in-love-and-will-complain-to-you Devdas’ and the corpo (short for Corporate, ie, Goldman Sachs or McKenzie) type. Our batch had all of these, with this one addition: a professional questioner.
Most of us, when we strained ourselves to participate - for there were marks for that - could only produce a question like, “Could you please explain that again?” (the primary driver behind this question being that the Professor hopefully then remembered our name at the time of scoring Class Participation). “What are the topics for the exam?” was about the most intellectual we could get. Hari – for that is the name that I shall assign our professional questioner – was different. He asked a question, because it was not just a question, but an inquiry, if you see the difference, a way of delving into the recesses of something, and emerging breathless for oxygen at the end of it.
Hari was one of the earliest students I befriended on campus back in 1989, possibly because we both had (and still have, by the way) the same surname. I wasn’t in the same section as Hari, but over the two years, there were courses that overlapped and, when I did find myself in the same classroom, I’d wait for The Hand to rise, for it was fascinating to watch. He came into his own in the right-brain classes – the ones involving social sciences, strategy, creative thinking of any sort or shades of grey – and stayed right out of the quanti courses that require in-built masochism and suicidal intent, in which respect, as you have already surmised, we were both alike (but that’s where the resemblance ended).
A well-built chap with curly hair and specs and a bit of a loner, he had a particularly intellectual look about him as he strode around the hostel block, taking large steps with a slight trademark stoop. His habit of taking his specs off and chewing on the stem, while gazing penetratingly at the Professor only intensified the appearance of an intellectual, and when he put his hand up to ask a question, there’d emanate from the class a collective groan, for it meant that the next few minutes would be spent in phrasing, paraphrasing, re-emphasising and adjudicating the question itself. At the end of his question, it was normal for the exasperated Prof to ask in mild irritation that the question be repeated please and could it now be kept short, for the class is only of an hour’s duration?
But, it was when he invented a new style of financial investing that the World sat up and took notice.
First, a prelude. My class included the pre-eminent Godfy, whose primary passion apart from academic excellence was to smoke the 555; indeed, when we referred to him as carrying six packs, it had an entirely different meaning. Hari noticed with astute attention - for he was a smoker as well - that Godfy tended to discard his cigarette just a touch before it extinguished and was quick to have the last smoke or two of the 555, something that hardly escaped the attention of those jobless worthies (called ‘fatru’s), who then passed this priceless information on to the gossips, who then relayed it to the finance whizkids, who then looked for stocks that had long lost favour but possibly had one last smoke left in them, resulting in a style of investing called the’cigarette butt strategy’ subsequently promoted by mere mortals such as Warren Buffett in the US and Harshad Mehta in India. But, make no mistake, it all originated with Hari.
Sometime late in the second year, Hari asked me if I would act in a play – a Greek tragedy called ‘Antigone’ - that he intended to direct for a theatre festival. The last time I had acted was when I had pretended to be ill on seeing a particularly healthy, revolting dinner and on that occasion Mum had clearly had her way. So, there was, where the theatre department was concerned, a clear and present (and yawning) gap in my education, but Hari would have none of it, insisting that I fitted the part like a glove. In retrospect, one thinks that there was only one glove on the rack, so he just made it fit. Once into it, I realised, with growing concern, that he had slotted me into the role of an important chappie in the play, probably the most important fellow in it and there were pages and pages reeking of medieval stuff to be mugged.
I decided to be the questioner in this case and use his key skill against him, create enough nuisance for him to say, ‘Let thy be out or whatever’ but before I could get my act together, he asserted that I was to kiss the lady protagonist on the cheek and that was when the true horror of what could follow struck me in the pre-frontal. I imagined the hooting while I was on stage, all engineered by garrulous, raucous, fatru, entirely worthless classmates who lived for a laugh and couldn’t empathise to save their grandmothers. I imagined raunchy comments and ‘once-more’ calls. I imagined subsequent months on G-Top in the company of my best friends, each of whom was, beer in hand, recounting how I had messed up the most rudimentary of tasks while they were all trying to help in the audience.
Those were the days when it wasn’t uncommon to have wild elephants a couple of kilometres from our campus on Bannerghatta Road and, if you had asked me if I preferred being left amongst them to this dreadful fate, I might have thought deeply and weighed the options.
So, I went up to Hari and said, ‘I am dropping out of the play’. He asked me to take on a side role instead – say, one of the Second Guards, where all you had to do was to stand at attention and take away the dead bodies when the third scene ended - and I continued with a ‘No’.
When the play was finally staged, I was in the audience alongwith my garrulous, raucous, fatru, entirely worthless classmates and happily one among them. We all gave Hari a standing ovation, though none of us had a clue on what the play was about.
The ovation had a clear reason: for while the play was being practised and perfected, Hari had missed a number of classes and, in turn, many questions each of which would have had parts, sub-parts, conjunctions, prepositions, contradictions and dilemmas.