Four years at IISc

It was four years ago that I walked into this abode of learning, already burdened by my luggage and the excitement that led to my admission here. As a parting message Father told me, “Study well, but do not just that. Have a good time. I won’t interfere not just because it’s not good but I don’t know much about your program.” So I was to fend for myself.

Well, nobody knew about the program anyway. (Jobs?!) It was another experiment the institute conducted (daringly and with a vision, we’re told. No prizes for guessing that Dr Kalam was behind this.) The program was close to being shut down two years ago; how close is a matter of your taste for histrionics. Now that the results have started to appear, it seems that the experiment has succeeded in many aspects.

As much as I had thought and told myself that I was prepared for the high academic standards of this place and the impending culture shock of living in a city like Bangalore, I didn’t have it easy at all. But the institute and the city have been very accommodating. Then there was the business of growing up, about which (almost) nobody specifically talked to me, and which came really hard at me.

It makes me think badly of myself when I read the things every eighteen year old should have mastered. Similar things to survive and thrive in college: very reasonable at first glance but not so when you’re living on your own in this serious and grown-ups-only world: attend every class on time; make good notes; ask questions; study on time and prepare well for exams; actively engage with friends and the larger institute community; debate; organise events; cultivate a hobby; master a sport, and so on. Everything checked but agonisingly partially, like a half-raised hand in a large auditorium. Like also played. The mediocrity was too painful; at times I was gasping for breath.

That dread hasn’t left me yet. I guess it is here to stay. Maybe I should just ignore it and move on, like how everything moves on: tests, semesters, summers, and years.

Things get much lighter, not easier but lighter — manageable, when you have a good group of friends who’ll help each other. Sometimes just a quiet listener can be your saviour.  Having friends with a taste for books, movies, and well-cooked food is a blessing. Taking a walk with friends in the dark, deep, and lovely woods, though you have grades to keep, isn’t an indulgence. It’s a part of college, of growing up.

While I made some very good friends, remarkable people all of them, and have great memories with them, I also very often shut myself away from everybody else. I took that luxury for myself to try and understand what works for me and what doesn’t.

A few weeks ago, I met an old friend who (also) went to a highly sought-after college. Going by the things he was saying, I was left wondering what a different college experience he had! Such let’s-make-a-big-dent-in-the-world optimism! If my (IISc) friends’ experiences or mine anything to go by, IISc has prepared us for life in a strange sort of way. True, each of us has had a unique experience, but our common ground is rather strange for undergraduates.

*

Like every college, ours has many problems too; it’s not my intention to dissect them here. If I were to think about the good things that happened to me, I can only be grateful to everybody I’ve met in the institute (barring the Academic Section guys, of course.) There’s nothing to complain and I have no regrets. This is just what (I wish) I would say when you ask me, “Aur bhai, kya haal hai?”

Four down, one more to go!

Identity Proof

It all began when the conductor asked him to show an ID proof and the young man retorted, “if I didn’t have the ID card, how did the conductor give me the pass?” The gloat in his eye was obvious.

“It will be a case, saar. That conductor would simply have asked if you had a proof. You must show your ID along with the pass,” shouted the conductor before moving away.

The talkative man who was sitting quietly opposite to him began his rant, and I still think our smart young lad should have listened respectfully.

“Ah, ID is a must. Anything will do, your voter card, PAN card, or even a xerox copy of your Aadhaar card. Who is this man, your father, isn’t he?” he said, pointing to the lean old man in blue lungi folded to his thighs.

The young lad wasn’t listening fully. He had ear-phones on and was idly scrolling down his smart phone that fit neatly in his large palm. The talkative man repeated his query, nodding his head, as if sizing up the arrogant brat in front of him.

“Namma chikkappa,” he said. My uncle.

Then the talkative man turned his attention to the old man who was neither as smart as the nephew nor had a phone to shoo away strangers giving unsolicited advice.

“Say you were lost. You were lost in Majestic. You randomly move here and there. A policeman stops you and asks your whereabouts. What will you show? How do you prove?”

Clearly, the old man didn’t expect such a situation. His grey brow thickened and he nodded his dark and weather-worn head in approval.

*

Elsewhere in the BMTC bus, a man standing behind me was talking on phone, advising his friend which phone to buy. The man before me checked a few Marathi jokes on his WhatApp-friends group, half-watched a video and slid his phone into his pocket. He did a couple of squats to relieve his aching calf muscles. Evidently, he had been travelling a lot today. All the while, our bus was stuck in a sea of four-wheeled vehicles called the Saturday evening rush. It didn’t move an inch for twenty minutes.

“Where are you from?” the talkative man continued his enquiry.

“Sira,” the young man replied.

“And why did you come here? Had a court-case? A land dispute?” I was astonished at the ease with which he asked.

“No, he came to sell the produce from our farm,” said the young man.

“You should not come to the city! Get somebody to carry your stuff. Just sit and enjoy your time in your farm. Why this trouble?” the talkative man said pointing to the daily pass of the old man who had no document to ratify his identity. The exchange was getting interesting, and as it began to take shape, our young man interjected, “Leave it saar, all this for an ID card.”

The talkative man grinned widely. He had been expecting this, and how ready he was with life advice! “See old man — these young guys — they don’t know the problems of us, the old. Whatever you say, they don’t listen. It simply doesn’t get into their ears.” Rightly so, because the young man in question had his earphones on and had given up; he held his face in his cupped hands and pretended to be asleep, and not listening. Before our bus moved any further, he was fast asleep.

The talkative man peered out of the window and spat on the road, almost on the car that sped by.

“Sira is developing these days, isn’t it? Companies are now opening offices in Tumkur. Did you see how they developed Nelamangala?” As everyone in Bangalore knows, development means a real estate boom and companies are software companies. The old man, it seemed, knew none of this, and he gave another nod.

“The same developers who developed Nelamangala are now working near Tumkur. I know the agents there. No agents or commission, they’ll come to your house directly. Good price also. I also know some ministers…”

For a moment, in that congested crowd on a Saturday evening, a life — or if you like, a livelihood — hung in a balance. A pause hasn’t been more pregnant. The old man did what he did the best. Nod. It meant nothing, and the talkative man got going.

“Have you got children, old man?”

A nod.

“When you write off your property, just give them their share and don’t bother what they do with it. These young people, we can’t say what they think. Leave it to themselves.”

How cunning, I thought.

“Listen to nobody. This is what any advocate will tell you.”

“Hahaha! But listen to you, shouldn’t we, sire?” I mumbled to myself. When he peered out of the window to spit again, I grabbed the talkative man by his collar and threw him out of the window. In my mind, of course.

*

Now the tired man before me became really tired, not of the monologue as I was, but of the traffic. “Where are we? I can’t see out of the window,” he asked the talkative man. He said where we were stuck in the traffic. “Where are you from, mister?” he asked the tired man.

“Maharastra.”

“Mumbaiyaa?” The question didn’t just mean Mumbai, but a sense of belonging to the city which he wanted to show that he had.

*

The rant continued, and the old man stopped nodding too: “I left Mumbai in 1997, and even when I go there now, I will definitely find work. I graduated in 1984. Do you know how old I would be now? Do you? I still continue to work. I was at NIMHANS today. They manufacture something, and they said that I must help them. You know what I said? ‘When shall I come?’ ‘Monday morning.’ ‘So, Monday morning it is’. Money is not important to me. I need contentment (gently pats his heart). I have got cars and vehicles. But I travel by bus everyday. Once I even ran into an accident. Driving is not for me. I have two sons, both are software. I can call them to pick me up, but I don’t. I have neither given nor taken from them a single paisa after they found work. One is asking me to marry him. I said ‘find a girl yourself and tell me, I will do it’. Today is a Saturday, means a holiday to them. One has gone to Kerala, and the other is somewhere else. You should know things about the world, swami… Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Dubai, Singapore. I have seen the world…”

The talkative man spat once again from the window. The old man — what would he do? — looked at his daily pass and cleared boogers with a blue towel.

*

I left the bus in Malleswaram to attend to more important things; but I wondered, what will the old man and the young man tell each other when they alight from the bus and rest for the day?

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

The White Tiger is a rags-to-riches story of Bangalore’s (most) successful but unnoticed entrepreneur. Between the rags and the riches is a gut-wrenching tale that bares the rotting soul of the country even as it is buzzing with trade and commerce. The narrator, who calls himself The White Tiger – an animal that takes birth only once in a generation – is typing away his story in the dead of night as letters to the visiting Chinese Premier Mr. Wen Jiabao in a silver Macintosh laptop bought from Singapore.

We are immediately transported to the Darkness – to the plains of North India – where the mighty Ganga flows. In a dramatic scene in which Munna, our protagonist, goes to Benares with his family to bury his dead mother at one of the ghats, the river sucks in the black liquid that is the remains of her. Like her, the Ganga sucks into herself everything that is born from it. The seas bring in Light: all the places on the coast are prosperous, but wherever the Ganga flows, there is Darkness.

This is a novel of tragedy and despair. Take for example Munna’s household: the womenfolk of the family work all day in their kitchen. Then they would fight each other, throwing plates, pulling hair and all, and the fighting was over, they would heal the wounds and sing songs to one another. All their lives. Or when Balaram (that’s a name Munna gets from the teacher) is removed from the school and put to work in a Tea shop, he is crushing the coal when his brother Kishan asks him, “Are you angry with me that you are removed from the school? Crush the coal thinking it’s my skull.” Or when Balaram visits the village the first time after he joins as a driver to Mr. Ashok, the family cooks for him a lavish meal of chicken. Balaram suddenly has a vision that the family is eating away the flesh of Kishan, as they did the same thing earlier with his father before he succumbed to tuberculosis and died a painful death. Balaram never returns to the village.

A great deal of the story is about the Rooster Coop.

Go to Old Delhi,and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundred of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages. They see the organs of their brothers lying around them.They know they are next, yet they cannot rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with humans in this country.

“This is the Rooster Coop. This is the reason why without secret police, without gun-firing, Mr Premier, a handful men of this country have trained the remaining to perpetual servitude…Everyday, servants from Surat carry bags and bags of diamonds to Mumbai in trains and nothing ever gets stolen… The trustworthiness of servants is the basis of the entire Indian economy.”

When Pinky madam, wife of Mr. Ashok, the America-returned son of the landlord (called the Stork: it is said that he has the habit of dipping his beak into the poor) crushes under a Honda City the ‘little black thing’ in cheap green fabric on the night of her birthday, Balaram is falsely accused of the killing. Hundreds of drivers from the Darkness fill the cells of Tihar Jail for the crimes of their masters. Even the judges who sentenced them know this; they all are a part of the coop. Balaram is devastated when he hears this, but his family is not. To them, it is the ultimate mark of loyalty to the master.

Why does the Rooster Coop work and what happens when one tries to escape it? To both questions, the answer is the family. It takes an animal of a human being to escape from the Rooster Coop and face the news of his family being hunted and beaten to death. Or run away from that too! It takes a White Tiger to escape the Rooster Coop.

When Balaram is plotting to kill his master – his master who fills the red bag with stacks and stacks of cash to pay as bribe to the politicians to get his family’s coal business running in Dhanbad – and abscond with the money, his nephew Dharam is sent to Delhi from the village to make a living. The moment when Balaram slaps Dharam hard in the face just as he arrives captures the tension and anger: just at the moment when he would escape the vicious coop, a new arrival from the village drags him back.

Eventually, he escapes Delhi with the money and his nephew after killing Mr. Ashok. He zigzags his way down south to Bangalore and listens to the city, as he did in Delhi as a driver. The last part of the tale is how rises to be the owner of a fleet of twenty Qualis vehicles, all air-conditioned in Summer, and runs a successful taxi service for IT employees.

*

Supplement The White Tiger with ‘Bihar is in the eyes of the beholder’, some fine feature writing by Vijay Nambisan and two movies par excellence: Gangs of Wasseypur I and II.

Back home, back to work

Hello there!

It is Summer, and the Gulmohars have taken over the institute – in the Gulmohar marg and elsewhere.  The bright sunshine pierces the canopies, fresh with the tender leaves of Spring, and lights up the roads and our spirits.  Then, there are the numerous types of birds merrily chirping, cooing and cawing; and not to forget, their droppings whose volumes may be as diverse as those of pipette tips in the biology labs.

This city is the darling among Indian cities chiefly due to its perennial climate of moderation.  Thanks to the rich variety of life in the campus, changes in weather are obvious though slight.  Mounds of shed leaves of the autumn gave way to carpets of flowers on the roads (bird droppings are permanent, of course).  The clear bright sky of Summer has added to the colour of tender leaves and flowers of every kind, of the healthy brown earth, of sign boards, of people, their clothes, the buildings and on and on.  To fall back on the seasoned description of Spring time, it is riot of colours here.

With it are stimulated our animalities that make us feel alive all over again: hunger (pray to your Gods to make you find mess food tasty), a slight tiresomeness and sweat.  Sweat, dear readers, is my favourite.  Many times, sweat alone is the result of your hard work.  In this city, even that is rare.

Students are here from everywhere for summer term making up for the emptiness of vacation.  Let us wish them good luck, and let us – in that spirit – roll our sleeves up to get back to work, more intensely this time.

For now, I have got a new water bottle, a bunch of pencils and a new pair of sandals.  I am going on a ride early in the morning on my little red bicycle.  Great times ahead!