Monday, August 7, 2017

Judge A Man By His Questions.......

 “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. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

My Kabuliwala

It’s a dark July afternoon and I have just put the book aside, preparing for an afternoon weekend nap.  It isn’t the first time I have read Kabuliwala, Tagore’s beautiful, haunting story, though I do recall that, when I did read it for the first time, it was a Hindi translation, and prescribed reading for the ICSE, just one of the stories in a lovely little book called Kahani Vividha.  I remember the cover of that book and the trance in which I had read Guruji’s story.  I remember staring out of the window onto that street in Indiranagar in Bangalore, an unseeing stare, as the mind saw what the eye did not.
And I remember Digboi.  
Because, you see, in Digboi we had our Kabuliwala too.  I see him now, as I peer through the sepia-tinted mist and look back in time, a tall, slim man with a scraggly beard, sitting on the floor of the portico of  Bungalow 75, my beautiful, immaculately British home.  Behind him is the circular driveway, with the large banyan in the middle, against which he is sharply silhouetted on this bright day. 
He has come a long long way, walking for days on end, jostling for space for himself and his sack in tight, claustrophobic train compartments, marking town after town and language after language to get here and those worn, compressed Pathani slip-on shoes have borne the travel with forbearance.

His dress – the Pathan’s trademark kurta-pyjama – was once white, but now wears a brownish-cream hue, as indeed does the cloth sack that has been opened out on the floor.  He brings out one tin after another and opens each up for view, in front of Mum and me.  

All agog with excitement, I eagerly sniff into each tin, for there is mystery and enchantment.  This is my initiation of sorts into a world beyond what I see every day.  The most fascinating smells emerge from these tins: smells of spices – clove, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg - and dry fruits – walnuts, dates, badam and raisins, which he calls ‘kishmish’, with a certain flourish.   
Yet, beyond those strong fragrances of ingredient, enticing enough for a child to be wide-eyed and snuffling, is the smell of that old sack itself.  It is the odour of experience, of a World-weary traveller who has lived the rough life and walked the earth.  If you close your eyes and breathe with depth and discernment, there is the olfactory resonance of blood and sweat that speaks the history of this man, the Kabuliwala.  The smells tells you that he has walked the highways, slept on logs being transported on goods trains and in railway stations that reek of compacted humanity, tussled with those who harassed him, starved in difficult times and eaten where he could afford to.  The smells tell you of a hard life, and, as in the case of those who live these lives, of the obsession with the here-and-now.  
And, when you open your eyes, you see a lined face that the mind’s eye can recognise.  Yet the man is hardly the weary sort; he has a smiling, easy countenance that laughs easily and speaks in an unknown dialect of Hindi that is comical, though effective.  When you laugh at his language, he joins in too.  Is that grace or an inability to understand that you are laughing at him in some sense?  Grace probably.  The lined face speaks of honour and dignity and the slim figure disguises an extraordinary strength that will be used in full force to protect this honour.   
The Kabuliwala hasn’t come to sell us his wares alone; he is a halting, shy story teller too.  In every new house that he visits, the questions must be the same: Where are you from?  How did you come here?  What is your family like?  Religion isn’t a question, for, as I see through that mist, those are liberal days.  Mum’s questions are more familiar, as the man has been here earlier:  What is it like there now?  How is the family?  
He knows that these conversations draw customers in; the more time he spends telling a story, the easier the sale (not the negotiation though, for all his customers are housewives) and he is no hurry to move on.  He looks at me with a kindly eye, and it helps that that’s the way to a good sale too; ‘Baba, please try the kishmish,’ he urges, and, of course, I oblige.   

He must have arrived as a part of a group of other Kabuliwalas, yet he comes to sell alone. When the price has been agreed upon - his bargaining is good-natured and gentle - and Mum gives him the money, he brings out, from the recesses of the kurta, an old cloth pouch with a drawstring and shakes out the contents - coins -  on the sack. My excitement is at its crescendo, for the coins, which smell strongly of cardamom, are, in themselves,a revelation; I ask him for the old brass-coloured, flower-shaped ten paise coin, in exchange for a more modern one that I have,  and I do a couple of more trades before Mum holds me back with a word in a tone sharp with disapproval, but the Kabuliwala doesn't really mind at all.    I watch him pack up at leisure, even as the smells dissipate into the warm air; he is chatting away now and wants Mum to recommend another home that he could go to.  Could she call and say he is coming as well? he asks.   
He stands up, this tall, gaunt-yet-powerful figure and, in a smooth motion, hoists the sack onto his back.  And he is off, walking down the driveway in a long and easy stride, and I know that, sometime in the next few months, perhaps the next year, he will be back again.  I stand by the portico, jingling the coins in my pocket, and watch till he has turned the corner - beyond Bulbul Aunty's home - and is lost to view.

The mists of memory recede now, yet, when I come back to the present, there is a sniff of cardamom in the air, on this gloomy, overcast monsoon afternoon; an olfactory memory that has lingered for forty two years and is activated on occasion by Tagore’s abiding genius. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The SSence of Maths

If you get off your vehicle on Ulsoor main road – a truly busy arterial way where pedestrians are uncooked meat, buses are uncrowned emperors and vendors of flowers, footballs and filters the unnamed nobility – and turn on a sidelane that represents the market, you will see a higher level of chaos, if indeed that is possible. There are carts, two wheelers, cycles and shoppers, a noisy mass, an agglomeration of busy humanity that has little room to stop, think or look around.  There is the movement, the smells, the colours and the diversity that represent India, all of which are detested by the upper classes (unless captured in a coffee table book), but are the lifeline for almost everyone else.  
Now, walk a bit down this road and do the unthinkable: stop for a moment.  Look to your left and you see the tiniest of houses with a narrow staircase in front leading to the little room upstairs.  If this was the 1970s or the 80s, you would turn in, take the stairs that led to the room and then join the queue of young students standing in the short, narrow corridor, speaking in whispers. 
For, in the room, was the finest Maths teacher that I (and a thousand other students) have ever known.   

SS – which is how S Srinivasan was called by everyone – wasn’t just a teacher; he was an institution into himself, far above the prosaic identity of St Josephs College of Arts and Science where he taught and where the men-in-frock ordered allegiance but got none.  SS asked for nothing – he charged no tuition fees, was perfectly fine with your neglect of homework or indeed your absence from class (it perhaps did not even register) and was happy to admit a late entrant.   What he did get in ample measure was respect and awe and a reputation that preceded him by some miles.   
SS was devoted to the science of mathematics; indeed, the word ‘devotion’ hardly does justice to his approach which was absolute, whole-hearted, involved, considerate commitment for its own sake and, indeed, nothing else.  The sweetest words to his ears were when a pupil-to-be said, “Sir, I want to study maths.”
He would then reply, “Why-uh? Are you writing an entrance exam-uh?”
“No Sir.  Actually, I only want to study maths to learn more” (though most who said it didn’t mean it; they had been tutored by the more experienced).
A beam would then appear on his face. 
“Ok-uh.  Come from tomorrow.  You can join the 4 pm batch.”
And that was that.   
The door upstairs would open early in the morning every day of the week (including Sunday, when he’d sometimes work through the day).  The queue of students – those in their under-grad or studying for CA, ICWA, engineering, post-grad or anything else – would have formed by then.  SS – a small, fair, rotund man with a triple chin, white hair and a stubble, wearing a veshti and shirt – would enter the room, after his morning coffee and take his seat behind an old table, as the students shuffled in and occupied every inch of the room.  He would then take the notebook of the nearest student, pull out a pen that was a fixture in his shirt pocket, spend a few seconds flipping the pages to get an idea of what had been covered (he taught so many groups that it was a miracle he could pick the threads up this quickly) and then continue.   
Now, here is the interesting part: after years of experience and teaching the scores of topics in maths, he needed no textbook to look up problems from, for even these were embedded in that razor-sharp brain.  If a student fished out a textbook and asked deferentially, “Sir, could you please look at this problem?”, he would take the book, narrow his eyes, examine the problem in question and then begin writing out the solution, speaking more to himself that to the student. 
“Yes-suh,” he would intone, “this-uh is a simultaneous equation-uh.  Now, let me see……” and, in a low-toned monologue that was accompanied by lucid steps, the problem would be laid to rest.  The retinue of students around him would write furiously, trying to keep up with him, or watch with fascination.  A few who had given up hope would stare and wonder if their parents could be persuaded to let them study fine art or music – with these students, he’d spend extra time most often to no avail, for the battle had been lost much before he started with them.  SS did not see his role as one of getting students to love maths, rather he was the ultimate problem-solver, a logicist par excellence.   

At about 8 am, he would wind up, go downstairs for breakfast, change from the veshti to a pair of trousers and, in a slow, deliberate way, pedal his way on an old cycle to college that was a good twenty minutes away, the steel tiffin carrier with curd rice securely held in the carrier at the back.  He’d return in time for an afternoon coffee and then get back into the room upstairs again, tutoring batch after batch till it was time for dinner.  During his sessions, everyone had a purpose and there was little room – forgive the pun - for banter, humour or, indeed, harangue and his eyes rarely left the notebook in front of him.  When the results of the various exams were announced, there would be sweets all around and a student would deferentially place an envelope with some cash in front of SS, which would then be gracefully accepted with a brief ‘Thank you’.    
There is no doubt that SS was a genius.  It may have been the curd rice that he had for lunch or the genes or perhaps both.  As an aside, while the second factor – genes – has been much researched,  I suggest that the the impact of the first – curd rice – on intelligence be classified as the final frontier of brain research, as the empirical evidence is compelling.   
There was just the one thing he was allergic to: the IIT entrance exam.  If a student fetched up and said that he wanted maths coaching for the IIT entrance, the fair face with the triple chin would morph into a frown, the eyes would narrow, the body would draw itself to its full height (about five feet five inches at best) and an icy voice would reply, “I do not prepare students for IIT-uh.”  And that, too, was that.
So, obviously, those who did prepare for the IIT entrance were creative.  In those days, one prepared for IIT in one’s 11th standard, not when one fell off the pram as happens now, so some quick thinking was easily done with inputs from other students and creative answers such as, “I want to learn maths because it’s my special subject” emerged.  

In St Josephs, he was part of a vanishing breed of Brahmin Lecturers, each an expert at his subject with a devoted fan following and larger than life, but humble and diligent.  Yet, it was the tuitions that made him the rockstar – for two years, while studying for ICWA, I was in that little room three hours a week, as notebook after notebook filled up with his prose and mine (which wasn’t a patch on his, of course). 
For thirty years, I have carried these precious notebooks around in the hope that I will go back to Permutations and Combinations on one dark, monsoon day.  A hope that, as I read those now-indecipherable pages with puzzlement,  the odd smell of that room will come back alongwith images of the devoted bunch in front of that small man, who lived for his craft, expecting nothing, yet generous with the astonishing knowledge that was stored in those special grey cells.  Perhaps then, caught up in that imagery, I will look at my son and say, “Why-uh are you not doing maths now?”

Friday, May 5, 2017

Three Men in a Boat

It did not seem ironical to me that the subject that would probably be most useful to us in our post-MBA life was taught by the most incompetent.

Rather, it seemed like fun, for the three characters who taught us Personnel Management and Industrial Relations (as HR was then called) were unintentionally comical.  They were as different from each other as chalk from cheese, yet the glue of incompetence held them together; about the reality of their subject, they knew nothing, about the theory, well, even less, if indeed that was possible.  The two who taught me were gentle, possibly gracious, with their grading of the hurriedly incomprehensible stuff that was written in the tests held, so even as this is written, there emanates a feeling of gratitude.

The first of this triumvirate was a small, fair, chubby, bald fellow, with a genial air and a charming smile, called Lele – a name that undoubtedly led to hours of fruitful speculation on variations, opposites (‘Dede’), alliterations (“Lele lekhak leke lao” for instance) and puns (“Le le le Delilah” from Tom Jones).  His entire demeanour was apologetic: he’d shuffle into class with some papers and smile up at the diligent ones who had deemed it necessary to attend (most didn’t).  Then, with an air of “Terribly sorry to have woken you up before lunch”, he would proceed to lecture with a firm, valiant air.  Nobody, of course, paid him any notice.  Occasionally, he would deem it useful to bring in some humour that he had used with every class since 1982 and these were moments of joy for us, for it enabled a release – I’d laugh more than necessary and go back to idle speculation.   Our senior batch, of course, had given us the low down on Lele’s exams: easy, routine, hence focus on other subjects and that was, shall we say, the last nail.  

The second fellow was Sampangi Ramaiah, whom I nicknamed SamRam.  He apparently taught us Industrial Relations, having worked in some public sector or the other.  Now, this should have given him the early ropes, for industrial relations in the public sector are notable by their absence and the subject could have been lightened up with conflicts, broken glasses, politics and intrigue, which would have, no doubt, gripped our collective attention.  Yet, this sober, taciturn fellow would turn up with the most boring – and by this I mean mind-numbingly tedious, frustratingly dreary, horrendously useless – theory, speaking largely to himself and the absorbing projector that seem to take much of his attention.  The feelings of the audience, if those were indeed feelings, were mutual.  He would cling to his material, as if a bear hug would facilitate knowledge transfer, and this attachment was only countered, sadly, by the class’s collective detachment to the same piece of academic drivel.  It did not help that a number of these classes were in the afternoon in a cool classroom. 
SamRam seemed to wander through the classes with little aim, and it was comforting to know that all not-so-good things also come to an end.   I once asked my friend Sampi, who was a mimic beyond compare, to imitate SamRam and let it be recorded for posterity that, for once, Sampi struggled to perform, for such was the perfection of ordinariness that SamRam had accomplished. 

Yet, the numero uno of this trio was clearly Bijoor.  In incompetence, of course, it would have been hard to judge if indeed he took the cake (or, more accurately, dropped it), for such things are perceptional, but clearly he was in many ways in a class of his own.  Much of the impressions I have of Bijoor are from my mates in another class, for he did not (thank God for the mercy) inflict himself on Section A, where I was.   He taught Section C and it would hardly be out of place to note that what he did was a C-section on them,  making unnecessary incisions on an unsuspecting public.  Bijoor had views (often extreme) about everything, and expressed them apparently with ferocity, and the rather cold fact that he taught Personnel Management hardly seemed to constrain him on expressing opinions on more pressing world matters.  Each class, of course, meant discussions amongst us subsequently about his current perambulations, and in that sense the classes were undoubtedly more engaging, but no one ever had a clue to this venerable gentleman’s course.  He was, I remember, a member of every committee in the country that would have him and those meetings provided the odd relief to the class that otherwise, in a word, reeled. 

The collective influence of the threesome was to inhibit any molecule of aspiration that might have existed in any student to pursue Personnel Management (admittedly, those molecules to begin with had been scarce).  We had a bunch of guys who taught us Organisation Behaviour as well, for this was seen as quite distinct from Personnel Management, the distinctions no doubt enriching many an author.  The OB guys knew their subject, but were as idiosyncratic as a Papua New Guinean with a hernia, and we shall leave that story for another day (though on SKRoy, I have written with feeling).  

Some years later, I opened an old trunk and took out a Personnel Management book, looking at it with some surprise.  Opening it and leafing through, I could remember nothing at all.  I was in the same boat as the triumvirate and it was then that I realised my true potential at teaching the subject.  So, look, I say, for a silver lining, and you will find it somewhere, sometime. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Couple of Minutes in a Lifelong Friendship

The routine would never change. 
Every year, at the onset of my summer vacation, Dad, Mum and I would begin the three day journey: drive up from Digboi to Dibrugarh airport, that is charmingly called Mohanbari, then fly in an Avro to Calcutta, stay overnight with Babymama at 112, Southern Avenue -  enough time to see just how much my cousins hated each other – travel from Howrah onwards to Chennai by the Madras Mail (and later Coromandel Express) which journey took a couple of nights, stay there for a few hours and then catch the Cochin Express to Ernakulam, another overnight journey.  We travelled First Class, not the modern airconditioned one, but the older version with glass and serrated windows that could be lifted up, and with the compartment pretty much to ourselves.  At times, we had the company of VS Menon Uncle and Indira Aunty for some part of the way, at other times we were by ourselves, but never really alone, for one can never be alone when travelling by train. 

I loved the journey as most children do, while Mum hated it as most mums do.  She had to manage much of the rations and hated using the bathroom or indeed leaving the comfort of the coupe, so she’d spend all her time reading or sleeping.  Dad – well, he had loads to do on the journey: he would bathe, shave, pack and repack with neatness and precision, apply generous quantities of talc on himself and on me to ward off the summer sweat, read, write letters when the train was stationary (a favourite preoccupation of his, written carefully in classic, printed handwriting), get down at all junctions to post his letters or to fill up water (which, I conjecture, gave me considerable early immunity),  make friends easily and peruse the timetable with curious vigour.   When VS Menon Uncle travelled with us, I would watch him light a cigarette with a mix of awe and inquisitiveness and wonder just how that smoke travelled inside him.    Much of the talc in the bag was then shaken into in a rolled up piece of paper to get the same effect, but it never seemed to work as well as the real thing: the talc would blow all over the compartment, and Mum would condemn this valiant effort at early childhood smoking.  On one occasion, I inhaled deeply on Cuticura – the original Malayali icon – and coughed until we had reached Waltair junction.    

Waltair was where I got my annual wooden cooking set and Russian dolls, toys that kept me engaged for the rest of the trip.  That part of the journey was possibly the most exciting, despite the heat, for the train seemed to travel over the Godavari for ever, even as I dropped the usual ten paise coin into the river and begged Mum for another one, without ever understanding why we did so.  And, then, we’d cross the Krishna for a repeat performance a few hours before we reached Madras Central.  Next to this station, of course, was Moore Market, where I had to be held back in chains else I’d have bought the market lock, stock and double barrel. 

It was when we were on the last leg of our journey that Dad would get all excited; his home was in Palakkad, but we’d not get off there now.  Instead we would get off at Cochin, and then, in a week or two, travel up to Palakkad by car.  When the train stopped, first thing in the morning, at Olavakkot Junction, as Palakkad’s station was unflatteringly called, he would hop off and buy tea, halwa (yellow, red and maroon), idlis and chutney for breakfast and two newspapers, one being the Mathrubhumi, in an effort to pump up the local economy.  During this buying binge, he would look around at those who were getting off and getting on (he knew about seven-tenths of the Palakkad population of his age or older) and, in general, become animated, with a gleam in the eye, for he was the quintessential Malayali at heart, waiting to get into a mundu.   

But, it was when the train began to move out of the station that the animation, the fidgeting, the gleam-in-the-eye would reach a sort of crescendo. 
The next station, about fifteen minutes away, was Ottapalam, on the banks of the beautiful Neela river (Bharatapuzha) and Dad would be all ready. 

As the train neared Ottapalam – a two minute stop -, Dad would be at the door scanning the landscape.  He had planned this out – as he always did - by writing a letter a month in advance, enough time to receive a response in confirmation. 

And always, as the train came to a halt, Mum and I would look out of the window and see him alight quickly, walk up to a small, elderly, spectacled, mild-looking man waiting at precisely the right spot, shake his hand and give him a bear hug. 
“Vasu!”, CN Nair’s gentle face would break into a smile, even as, in his happiness, the emotion would threaten to run over and overcome him.  He would hurry forward to talk with Mum, who is a couple of years older than his oldest daughter, and hand over a breakfast packet for all of us.  While accepting it gratefully, Mum would insist that this should not have been sent, that it was a lot of work for Chechi (CN’s wife) and in the next sixty seconds, the three of them – CN, Dad and Mum - would have exchanged all the news that anyone in Kerala needed to know.  As you can imagine, much of the conversation centred around who-was-where and matrimony: marriages, proposals, proposals that didn’t quite have the requisite CGPA, weddings attended at Guruvayoor (a favourite Nair pastime, if you did not know).  I often wondered if the only two things people in Kerala did was to get married or to attempt to get others married off, and, of course, as I am now older and have a better understanding of these things, I know that I was right then. 
Dad would then enquire if CN was getting his pension alright, and, if not, whether there was anything to be done at his end.
For, you see, CN Nair Uncle and his wife, were possibly the first Malayalis in Digboi, reaching there at the time of the Second World War, and finding a place for themselves in an alien culture, far away from home.  They were the courageous, cerebral, dedicated expats of yore and they took, under their generous wing, all those who followed from their home state.  To Mum and Dad, they were foster parents: CN was the wise counsel and friend, while Mrs CN's cooking was, by all accounts, divine. They were, in some way, I recall dimly, related to us, but then all Nairs are related to each other in a web of complex quantum theory that defies normal understanding.
I wonder if CN missed his life in Digboi.  Dad send him regular letters that kept him informed of the comings and goings in the little town, but, remember, that was a world in which nothing ever changed.  And, in these two minutes, of course, there was little time for nostalgia. 

The whistle – that marvellous steam engine whistle that I now yearn to hear – would blow, and Dad would hop back on and wave from the doorway, while Mum patiently explained to her son - who seemed stubbornly incapable of understanding relationships and connections - just who this gentleman was (for the sixth time).  And, as the train steamed away towards the precarious bridge over the Neela, I would press my head against the grill and stare at the lonely, dimunitive figure on the Ottapalam station who was waving back till we could not see him anymore.   

And Dad, of course, would get back to the coupe and write out his next letter. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hunger Be Hanged

Dear men-who-matter,
India, as I am sure you have now read, ranks 97th on the latest Global Hunger Index published last week.  Such top-line data is provided by rather dubious organisations like the International Food Policy Research Institute, with the obsessive intention of shaming us; never forget that there are many envious folks who have looked at our GDP growth with increasing despondency. 
We are celebrating the 25th year of Economic Independence (liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, as the new wave was called), that has unleashed entrepreneurial magic, created Gurgaon (though we do apologise for that) and propelled the Sensex to twenty seven thousand (and counting).  Our per capital GDP has grown from $324 to $5730 and, among other accomplishments, we are now the diabetic capital of the World. 
It is critical therefore that we ignore the myopic presentation by the IFPRI, sieve through this data carefully and arrive at fair conclusions.  In other words, we must look at the resplendent bright side.  So, here goes:

    a)       There are 21 countries whose hunger is worse off than ours. 
    b)      One of them is Pakistan. 
    c)       Liberia, our biggest competitor for world market share in software services and business outsourcing, is slightly behind us as well.
    d)      Zambia, which also got independence from England, though later, should have done much better than us, because it is a smaller country.  Their Hunger Index is 39 and we must cheer that we are at 28.5 (the bigger the number, the worse the hunger), though we were about the same when liberalisation set off in 1992.    
    e)      Mali, with a GDP per capita (income per head per year) of about $2300 – which is less than half of India’s – is only slightly better than us in hunger, not significantly better.  Given that they have just waged a nasty war with extremists, many hungry people must have died which improved the average, else they’d be behind us.
    f)       The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos – which is, in reality, neither democratic nor a republic – has the same ratio of Hunger to GDP per capita, which should give us much cause to cheer, because, you see, we are both a functioning republic and a democracy.  Our country is one where you have unrestricted freedom to go hungry.    
   g)     Rwanda has (percentage-wise) fewer hungry people, but don’t look down on India.  Our GDP is over three times theirs.  We should focus on GDP per capita, not on hungry people.  Also, remember that we belong to the BRICs trading block, while Rwanda can only have modest dreams of, at best, exporting feathers to South Africa.   Another oft-forgetten point: we have a 5000-year old culture that has included a form of hunger in it called fasting.  More people fast in India than go hungry in Rwanda and these things matter – they add to the Hunger Index.  
    h)      You should be relieved to hear that, despite the best efforts of DreamWorks, Madagascar’s hunger situation is alarming.  So is the hunger in Zambia and Chad.  Yes, don’t forget Chad and thank your stars that you live in a country like ours which has only 28.5 points stacked up on the Hunger Index.  The only thing good about Chad is that it isn’t Zimbabwe.
    i)        So what if Tunisia is only 5.5 on the Hunger Index; it’s a really dangerous country to live in and you could die of other reasons than hunger (Travel Mortality Score of 61.5).   Likewise for Ukraine, that just got part taken-over by Russia.   In India, we are much safer and many only die of hunger. 
    j)        Data released by the Thai Rice Exporters Association suggests that India has beaten Thailand to become the largest exporter of rice in the world. According to the reports, India has exported 10.23 million tons of rice in the year 2015 as compared to Thailand's 9.8 million tons. In terms of imports, China remains the number one importer of rice.  As China scores only 7.7 on the Hunger Index, India has done much, no doubt, to ameliorate hunger in that deprived country.  Other countries we have hugely helped are Nigeria, Iran, Malaysia and some in the Middle East, all of which rank better than us in the Hunger Index.  
    k)       Djibouti – which country's name we should all learn to pronounce correctly and learn more about, as it is one of our largest competitors in laundering money – is much worse off as far as hunger goes, I am pleased to report.  They speak French there and are not very good at cricket or kabaddi, and therefore, will stay behind us for a while to come.
    l)        At least two countries that play cricket are worse off than us – Pakistan and Zimbabwe – and, while, in the others, hunger is less prevalent, their Cricket Boards have much less money than ours, which is something we should be deeply proud of.
    m)    Mukesh Ambani, who has been named India's richest person for the ninth year in a row with a sharp increase in net worth to $22.7 billion, has a fortune that is equal to Estonia's GDP, says Forbes India. Estonia scores less than 5 on the Hunger Index, but that is pathetic in comparison to Mr Ambani – he scores 0 on the Hunger Index.  And, that is again something, we should all be proud of, but why does no one focus on these things and go on and on about hunger?  
    n)      We have set one record that no international organisation - damn them - gives us any credit for : as per the response of the Food Corporation of India to a request for information, at least 1,94,502 metric tonnes of food grain was wasted in India due to various reasons between 2005 and March 2013. 
    o)      We must also be deeply respectful of the ability of the FCI’s bean-counters to keep detailed information – down to the last tonne - of such wastage.  Our records of people who have died of hunger are sketchy and exaggerated though – the Iron Lady from Bengal is absolutely certain that no tea garden worker in the closed gardens of North Bengal has died of hunger or malnutrition.  And, since the Iron Lady is always right, those who recorded such data – journalists, fact-finding missions and others –are liars, with mendacity bordering on the criminal.
    p) India has also engendered the most extensive body of original research on hunger, which has resulted in the most books published anywhere on the subject.  Books such as "Hunger and Famine in Kalahandi: An Anthropological Study".  Such research has provided valuable employment to a number of doctoral students. 

If you are reading this, the chances are you do not know anyone who has died of hunger.  No one who has a Linked-in or Facebook account in India has died of hunger as well.  So, should we not wonder at IFPRI’s objective in publishing this stuff?

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Maths Teacher I never knew

The tall, thin and shy young man seated at the dining-cum-study table had the thick spectacles and genteel demeanour of an earnest khadi-clad socialist; he looked briefly up at me – then a little boy of ten – and went back to the Maths text book in front of him, while my brother, who was studying for his IIT entrance exams with the assiduity he normally reserved for his tennis, concentrated on the entirely unfathomable heavy book in front.  

The young man was good at his subject, of this there was no doubt; indeed, if anything was his world, it was the arcane planet of formulae and he had a good Brahmin’s brain to negotiate the treacherous pits that math sums (as problems were then called) hid in your path.  
My parents were delighted at having him teach my brother maths, of course, and my mother, as moms are prone to do, alternated between praying for the IIT seat and praising the maths teacher every day, though she hadn’t the faintest clue to what was being taught (she would, however, announce to the world that Calculus was not for the faint-hearted).  For in Digboi, the World’s finest little town, nestled amidst the tea bushes of Margherita and the oil fields-and-forests that stretched to Burma, a maths teacher of his competence was quite a dream come true; possibly, the only thing that might have bettered this would have been an invitation from IIT on a bone-china plate with a lemongrass, rosemary-and-thyme dressing (but, of course, one must be realistic, particularly about the lemongrass, rosemary-and-thyme dressing). 

Purkayastha did not set out to be a professional teacher; he was studying Chartered Accountancy and had a modest job in the Finance Department at Assam Oil, where Dad was the head of Internal Audit.  He looked up to Dad and had volunteered to teach my brother maths, when Dad had passed the question around.  And, so, that was that.
When my brother got into IIT, I saw Purkayastha for the second time (I was banished from the dining room when he normally came in to teach, as ten-year olds are deemed a nuisance to society in general and to older brothers in particular).  Purki (the name that stuck with him for life) had a broad smile on his face, and his quiet tone conveyed satisfaction.  And, one can only speculate that this early success was a deciding factor in his decision to become a high-school maths teacher at Carmel Convent, the local ISCE institution.
He never taught me: a couple of years later, we left Digboi for good just after I had finished my sixth standard. Family friends who visited us in Bangalore said that, while he had left his finance job at Assam Oil, he hadn’t quite left finance; his goal to become a Chartered Accountant had only been strengthened, and he prepared twice a year;  CA exams, I will add, may be termed the most arduous of all punishments invented in the Twentieth Century. 
Occasional reports informed us that he hadn’t yet cleared CA, though he came close, even as his reputation as a Maths whiz began to grow and  everyone spoke of him with a touch of awe.  And then, the odd report from Digboi stopped coming and I assumed that Purki had probably moved out of the town, possibly to Calcutta or elsewhere. 

In 2012, I went back to Digboi, thirty five years after I had left it and met with my old – and among my dearest – friends, Rajiv.  We had much catching up to do (and some ribbing, for the water that had flowed under the bridge over the years had taken a lot of our hair as well) and then, the conversation inevitably moved to our teachers.  When Rajiv spoke about Purki, his normally-genial expression underwent a change and he turned grim and forthright.  For Purki, he said, had been a terror, a monster of sorts, for my old classmates when they reached their tenth standard and had remained one ever since.  He would set problems in tests that were harder than the hardest and was harsh and relentless in his assessment; often, only one student – Vineet, acknowledged now to be quite a genius – consistently met his grade.  For the others, there would be vitriol, scathing sarcasm and nasty predictions of failure and it seemed that many in the class were deeply emotionally impacted by what was said and, more, by who said it (a maths teacher is a touch below God in the Hindu pantheon).  A few years of personal failure – that damn CA exam -  seemed to morph this genial, shy, young fellow into a dark, embittered man.  Rajiv ended his possibly justified tirade with a mild warning – he has retired from the school and is still somewhere in Digboi, he said, but meet him at your own risk. 
I decided at that moment to meet Purkayastha.  It was an impulsive thought, of course, and strange, for I had seen him just a couple of times, had smiled at him once thirty five years ago, had never been taught by him and knew nothing about him.  A silly decision?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps, I believed that a word of appreciation on my brother’s behalf would make a retired teacher’s day come alive.

 Events conspired interestingly.  I met a lady with the same surname as his, asked if she knew him and, voila!, I had his number.  When I called the next day, the voice was non-commital and hesitant; he would be ok to meet me, he said.  Walking up to the busy market area of Charali, I sipped a cup of tea at a ramshackle little hotel and then strolled down a nondescript street asking passers-by for the way to Purki’s home.  It wasn’t easy to find and I lost my way a bit but, when I did get there, the tiny little house on a narrow by-lane presented itself.  I stood for a moment to contemplate if I was indeed nuts to do this and then rang the bell.
This was the second time I had met Purki and, of course, he had changed; he had put on more weight and had a heavy chin, but, above all else, I saw a tired and unhappy man.  After we had sat down and exchanged small talk, I spoke of my father, whom he remembered well, and passed on the compliment I had come to deliver.  
It was as though I had opened up a tap of turbid – and complex - emotions.  Purki began to ramble, with more than a trace of dejection, his rant reserved for Carmel School that had been his life but had in the end treated him badly, even as he recalled some of his students fondly while being indifferent to others.  He spoke of his integrity as a maths teacher, of how he had hardly ever missed a day of school in decades of teaching, and of being isolated by other teachers and of the hurt caused by this loneliness.    He spoke of his frustration with the CA exam, the abandoning of which had sealed further opportunity.  And, he spoke of his son, a bright student he said, but languishing in the Government College as there was no money to pay for private education.  
I listened. 

Isn’t it true that beneath many exteriors - many sustained exhibitions of hubris, derision, harshness and criticism – there is a great sadness?  Anger masks sadness and nostalgia enlivens it. And for many who do not see a different tomorrow, this sadness offers the meaning they once were seeking.  
After a while, the conversation, as it unwound, began to seem forced and it was time to say goodbye.  He asked for help for his son and I promised, leaving my number behind, but knowing that he probably would not call. 
As my palms came together and I said Namaste, I knew that we would not meet again.  Some meetings are meant to be this way.