Archive for June, 1999

Calcutta Diary

Monday, June 28th, 1999

Jun 28, 1999

Just An Ad-On

AMONG the three Indian cities I have lived in for extended periods, Calcutta is definitely the least developed. But it is also far more a “city”, much more than, say, Delhi is. That is, if by “city” we mean an agglomeration which has a personality of its own, a living thing with its own unique ambiences and experiences, an entity greater than the sum of its people and roads and buildings, something you can develop a relationship with, get furious with and sentimental about. Calcutta, like that other true city, Mumbai, insists and makes sure that you engage with it.

And Calcutta with the World Cup on is like no other place on earth. Streetcorners flaunt huge framed posters of Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly, which are garlanded ritually. Teenagers wear “I cheer for India” badges. On the morning of any India match, business soars at the Kalighat temple. Two days after India’s Zimbabwe disaster, fishmongers are more interested in discussing whether match referee Cammie Smith was right to lift the field restrictions in the 13th over than in selling fish.

The roads empty out in the afternoon, shops and markets actually close down, office work stops. If India wins, jubilant processions take to the streets immediately, complete with Indian flags-and of course banners of the local club which has organised the celebration. Three thousand people landed up with sweets, brass bands, firecrackers, the works, at Saurav Ganguly’s house at midnight after the Sri Lanka match to congratulate his family for Ganguly’s 183.

But do they know what they are celebrating? The truth is many of these manic enthusiasts are clueless about all but the bare basics of the game. A teacher friend of mine, who is livid about the whole business (“Last year World Cup soccer, this year World Cup cricket, we should bloody ban all these things!”), one day asked some of his Kalighat-tilak-anointed, “I cheer for India”-badged, Sachin-watch-toting class nine students some simple questions. None could answer how an off-drive is different from a cover drive, where third man stands, who Jack Hobbs was. “It’s all these soft drink and TV companies!” raged my friend. “It’s not a game now, it’s just some sort of mindless lifestyle thing!” Who said advertising doesn’t work?

Its Winning Wit

AND of course Calcutta is India’s wittiest city. This was reconfirmed to me during the India-Australia match. When Sachin succumbed to McGrath for a duck, the friend I was watching the telecast with immediately exclaimed: “Good lord! They actually sent in Shah Rukh Khan instead of Sachin!”

Bhai Vs Miya

CALCUTTA is a cruel place for Indian cricket captains. Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar would vouch for that. But no captain-perhaps no cricketer on earth-has had such an extreme relationship with a city as Mohammed Azharuddin with Calcutta. In his 16-year international career, the first time Azhar scored less than 50 in a Calcutta Test match was a few months ago against Pakistan. But when India lost the ’96 World Cup semi-final to Sri Lanka, the city’s response was brutal. Some months later, he returned to hit a century against South Africa, going from 86 to 106 with five consecutive fours off Lance Klusener. Calcutta was delirious with joy, but Azhar refused to raise his bat to the crowd. Two days later, South Africa had won the match with Klusener taking eight wickets in the second innings, but Calcutta’s relationship with Azhar was on an even keel. Last year, India walloped Australia at Eden Gardens, and Bengali teens were again referring to him as Azzu bhai (he is referred to as Miya when Calcutta hates him).

But when India lost to Pakistan a few months ago, Azhar’s stock plummeted again. And in World Cup ’99, every day, nearly every Bengali paper carried three to four pieces vilifying Miya, and demanding his immediate sacking. After the Zimbabwe match, a group of fans apparently went to the extent of procuring a dozen dead rats and made a garland of them around an Azhar poster. That’s hard work. That’s also frightening passion.

Big Hopes For Li’L Gangulis

THERE is a social revolution on in Bengal. It began one summer afternoon at the Lord’s in 1996. When Ganguly scored that magnificent century on Test debut, he triggered off something akin to what Borg sparked off in Sweden with his Wimbledon title in the mid-’70s. Early in the morning, if you look out of your window, you will see streams of boys of various sizes, dressed in spotless whites, on the way to cricket schools.Few Bengalis have played for India, much fewer than the number that should have played. Prakash Poddar, Shyam Sundar Mitra, Ambar Roy, Subrata Guha, Gopal Bose, Raju Mukherjee were all Test-class players who were victims of shameful selectorial injustice. Even Ganguly has faced it, being dropped arbitrarily during the 1997 Sahara Cup (Jadeja, who opened in his place, scored eight off 60 deliveries. Saurav was reinstated). But now you see a huge resurgence. Of course, the fact that cricketers today make obscene amounts of money is a major driving force, whether the Bengali parent admits it or not.

Most would-be-Gangulis being too young to lift their cricket bags, which contain full kits-pads, gloves, bats, guards-it is their doting and ambitious parents who carry these along. The parents wait by the field and keep a hawk eye on their ward’s progress, constantly pestering the coach about their 10-year-old’s chances of making it to the India team.

The Borg effect resulted in the emergence of Wilander, Edberg, Jarryd, Pernfors, Hillstrom, Carlsson. Who the Ganguly Upheaval will produce is a question the far future will answer, but in the meantime, almost anyone who has ever played Ranji for Bengal has set up a cricket school and business is booming. However, sometimes the parents’ expectations get a tad too scary for the coaches to handle. An ex-cricketer-turned-coach confided to one of my colleagues that almost every mother who comes to him with her son has one simple demand, that he be turned into a Sachin or a Saurav. Now, given that Bengali mothers as a breed anyway believe their sons are near-superhumanly talented (Most common motherly conversation on Calcutta buses: “His class teacher told me, you know, that Khokon is so intelligent, but he keeps making careless mistakes in the exams, otherwise he would come first every time”), cricket coaches in Calcutta, while currently making hay, may be well-advised to look at the future with some trepidation.

Don’t hold them back

Wednesday, June 2nd, 1999

Jun 02, 1999

Because staying has made cynics of many of our brightest. In any case, it’s their life.

By the time we reached final year in IIT Kharagpur, most of my classmates were focused totally on the GRE, SOPs (statements of purpose), I-20, recommendations, and words like “caparison” for the vocab tests. One friend, knowing that his grades weren’t so good, applied to 48 universities, busting a cool Rs 1.5 lakh (and this was 1984-85). One particularly paranoid chap posted his 12 applications on 12 different days, so that even if a trans-atlantic plane crashed, he would lose out only one university.

About 60 per cent managed to get scholarships-full or half-and winged it. Only two, to the best of my knowledge, have come back.

The cover story this issue, as you know, is a guide to studying abroad. I am burdening you with what may look like unnecessary reminiscences only because some of our readers may feel that Intelligent Investor is irresponsibly encouraging young Indians to flee our shores. This column is the pre-emptive defence to that accusation.

Why did my classmates go? Some because they wanted a career in research, and the only way to fulfil your potential is to go to the US. Where else would you get to interact with the most brilliant minds in your field? Where else could you dream of an institution like Bell Labs which allows its recruits to spend their first year just looking around to decide what they want to work on? Where else could you be a full-fledged participant in technological history as it is created?

Some went for these reasons. But most went, whatever reason they may claim, because they were “supposed to”, swayed by parental ambitions and peer pressure. Many of them, having hung around for seven years in the US to get automatic access to the job market, are today in inconsequential jobs, socially far worse off than they would have been in India.

Indeed, I remember this formidable professor of ours who refused to give recommendations to most (and his reco meant instant admission to most US universities). He would ask everyone who went to him why they wanted to go. All would answer that they wanted to do pathbreaking research, etc. He would listen and then throw most of them out of his room. So when this long-haired, guitar-playing backbencher knocked at his door, he asked him the same question: why do you want to go the US? My friend answered: “You know, like, a change of scene.” “The most honest answer I’ve heard this year,” said the professor and wrote out a glowing reco.

But, but, but. Many of my classmates did not go to the US straight from IIT, they preferred to stay back and work in India. And nearly all of them took the GRE within two to three years and went off, or joined an IIM to renounce engineering careers. It is they we should worry about. Not the research-focused, they should go, that is the only way we will get a Hargobind Khurana or an Amartya Sen. Not the peer-pressured, they are brainwashed.

Most of those who stayed back, consciously refusing to flow with the current, found themselves in jobs they were vastly overqualified for, in stupefyingly frustrating environments. They were copying out Russian blueprints, and don’t even think of modifying them even if they are clearly dumb or wrong. They were maintaining boilers, which anyone of average intelligence and a year’s training can do. They were put in the commercial department, bribing and selling to moronic government officials. They were also paid considerably less than someone in the same company who had graduated in Home Science and done an MBA.

They were hapless observers as society replaced professions like teaching in their “respect seedings” with modelling, and engineering with financial engineering. They were victims of that great Indian contradiction of a few world-class educational institutions and a Third-and-a-half World industrial scenario.

Why should they stay in India? And please don’t mention the term “brain drain”.

Lastly, going abroad is an individual’s decision about his own life, which he has every right to take. If it works out, he takes the credit. If he ends up as a janitor in Minneapolis, he alone is to blame. There have been vague proposals in the past about making it compulsory for IITians to work in India for two years after they graduate. This sort of measure will be as successful as any prohibition regime in human history has been in curbing drinking.

I did not go abroad from IIT. I don’t regret that decision. Most of my friends went. It was their choice and I respect it. One even came back after his masters, with accent quite free of Yankee twang, and he does not regret returning. To each his own.