Archive for May, 2000

The Best Of Worlds

Monday, May 29th, 2000

May 29, 2000

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of IITians do nothing of note in their lives…

Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of IITians do nothing of note in their lives. Indeed, many of them became IITians because their parents told them that’s what they should mug their butts off for, and aim to hit the US of A, so that’s what they did. They attended classes, took notes, passed exams, took the gre, applied to a dozen American universities, and disappeared into that country’s vast technological underbelly, to reappear only in the matrimonial columns of Indian papers with a dollar salary multiplied diligently by the day’s exchange rate. Or they stayed in India, working at unexceptionable jobs, doing reasonably well. In either case, they got beautiful brides (often from rich families) and presumably lived happily ever after, meeting classmates once a month and chatting about their IIT days, and how Hippo has just changed jobs, and Zap is three rungs away from the top in Cisco Systems. Each of them had intelligence well above the average, and most, exceptional academic tenacity.

A decade and a half out of IIT, I wonder how many of us IITians achieved our potential? How many went to seed in remote dusty townships, tending massive pipelines and drinking in the township club? How many wilfully walked away from their natural talents in favour of safe MNC jobs selling diapers and hire-purchase schemes? How many, trained to think rationally and without bias, never managed to figure out the nuances of Indian office politics, and were relegated to obscure corridors in huge buildings? How many, obsessed with the American dream, settled for second-rate US universities, hung in for a green card, and today work at unfulfilling jobs in Idaho?

There’s another angle too to this. How many IITians, determined to stay engineers and in India, ignored the siren songs of the USA and the IIMs, and joined Indian industry, only to find that all the technical designs came from abroad, that you couldn’t change them even if you knew they were flawed, that all the engineering you got to do was maintenance, and knowing all that, they either settled into mediocrity, or went off to the US or the iims?

What was my IIT education all about? It was about IITians: 400 academically exceptional boys (and 12 girls) on a campus, which, in the case of Kharagpur, where I went, was far enough from civilisation to have very interesting effects on our coming of age. Many of us were truly extraordinary. There were boys from village schools who were leagues ahead in knowledge of the urban convent-educated type. There were those who mugged night and day, or simpered at professors from first benches, and there were those who also had a vibrant and busy life outside academics. I’ve found that the latter did better in life, even in fields like pure research. I also had friends who never needed to study, they had been apparently born with engineering wisdom in their genes. There were guys who spent most of the semester in a drug haze, but sobered up a few days before the exams, cracked them, and went back to their pharmaceuticals. Others did not have such control. Like Allen Ginsberg, I too saw some of the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. A few dropped out (I met one of them years later in Shillong, a stridently devout convert to Catholicism, and a lowly government clerk, but he seemed happy), a few killed themselves. But, most of us survived. I suppose we became tougher, more mature, more knowing, and more aware of our dark sides.

We lived and ate together, and shared our joys and heartbreaks and good times and bad times, in competition and camaraderie. We compared our philosophies and, bit by stumbling bit, developed our value systems. Never were stronger bonds forged between young people. Years from now, if I meet an IIT wingmate on the road, I know we will carry on as if nothing had changed, and nothing actually would have. A couple of years ago, there was a small visual trick on an Outlook cover, which was my idea. A close IIT friend, whom I had not been in touch with for years, called up from Singapore: “Some other name is mentioned in the cover credits, but it was your idea, right? I know the way you think.” No one knows me better than these mates of mine from IIT.

IIT was also a whole insular world in itself, complex and complete, and it sucked us in. As The Chosen, we lived a full life with no necessity of any contact with the outside world. Totally cut off from politics and “the bigger issues”, our delights remained in competing fiercely on the field or the stage with other hostels or other colleges. There were few material pleasures. Lifestyles were spartan, the food abysmal. The vast majority of males were totally deprived of female company. The girls lived a strange life-on the one hand, they were hounded by dozens of would-be suitors; on the other, they faced the petulant hostility of the majority which saw them as undeserving of so much adulation and so many free lunches.

When we graduated, we went out into the world with a rare confidence and strong tribal loyalties. The confidence eroded a bit over the years, and we learnt some humility when we discovered non-IITians as smart as we were, and also people who could outwit us because they were intelligent in a different way-in a sly political way-an acumen we had not developed in our isolated environment which, above all, inculcated a sense of fairness and a respect for ability. We came to terms with a world that compared poorly with our beloved campus, and some of us even went ahead and conquered it. Others didn’t do well, but knew that the ties between them and the masters-of-the-universe classmates would never change. They were ties born of the pride of being an IITian. That pride would never diminish.

It never can.

New Orleans Diary

Monday, May 15th, 2000

May 15, 2000

Shooting Sheriffs

IN the United States, all the news, in both print and electronic media, is about crime. Crime, minute by minute, from every angle, in obsessive detail. With endless debates on the ethical questions involved. Often, the circumstances justify the debates. Here are two representative cases.

The day I reached New Orleans, the big news was the police killing of a 13-year-old boy. They had chased a gang of teenage criminals into an empty house. During the search, a policeman opened a dark closet and a 13-year-old boy, who had been hiding inside, rushed out and, apparently, grabbed the cop’s throat. The policeman fired, killing the boy. The boy had no criminal record, but his 19-year-old elder brother was a known criminal. He had been chatting with his brother when the police gave chase. As his brother and the rest of the gang ran and hid in the house, so did the small boy. Should the policeman have waited that extra fraction of a second before he fired? He would have then known that this was just a small boy; on the other hand, if it had been someone else, that extra half-second could have meant the policeman’s death.

A few days later came the acquittal of a policeman in another infamous shooting case. A man came out of a shop to find two masked goons trying to steal his car. He drew his gun and fired at them. The would-be-thieves fired back. At this point, an off-duty policeman came out of a nearby bar. From where he stood, he could see only the car owner shooting. The policeman drew his gun and shouted at him to drop his weapon. The man refused, shouting back that he was hassling the wrong man. The policeman claims he couldn’t make out what the man was saying, but saw him turning his gun towards him (a not-unjustifiable perception if the man turned to yell at the cop). The policeman shot and killed the car owner. The car thieves were never caught. What should the policeman have done?

When the blink of an eyelid makes the difference between life and death, how do you wait to find out?

The Chinese Heritage

Among all American cities, New Orleans is perhaps the one with the richest heritage. Set up by the French, ceded to the Spanish, taken over by the French again, and sold to Thomas Jefferson’s government in the early 1800s, the city is a melting pot of cultures. Souvenirs to be bought range from voodoo artefacts to Mardi Gras masks and reproductions of old French maps of the swamps surrounding the city. All very New Orleans. Except that, if you check them out, almost all of them are made in China.

Hello Goodbye

The land of paradox. One morning, on my way out, I noticed that the banquet hall in my hotel was the venue for Splitsville Redux, a seminar on “the special legal issues relating to the second divorce”. Lawyers in dark suits conferred grimly. Six hours later, when I returned, the hall wore a totally different look. Men and women dressed to their nines chatted over cocktails. There was music and dancing. A wedding party was on.

Cajun Punjab

And of course, the Sardarji has reached New Orleans. As I stepped out of my downtown hotel, the first sign that caught my eye was Singh’s Restaurant: Best Tandoori Food. Twenty years in New Orleans has not mellowed Mr Singh’s colourful Punjabi vocabulary, though his information base about the home country has been seriously eroded. He doesn’t want to visit India again, he told me, because India has been sold off to foreigners. Well, yes, after economic liberalisation, a lot of people claim this sort of thing, I muttered, not wanting to get into an argument, but it’s not such a cut-and-dry issue… “Arre yaar,” said Mr Singh indignantly, “what cut and dry you are talking about? After India has sold Delhi airport to the Chinese, what is left?” “What airport?” “Delhi international airport,” Mr Singh informed me. “Two Madrasis from India came to my restaurant only last week. They told me that the Indian government has sold the Delhi international airport to the Chinese!”

Having taken a flight from that airport just a few days back, and not having noticed too many Chinese around, this was news to me. Clearly, secret deals are being struck without taking the Indian people into confidence, and it’s high time investigative journalists got cracking. Otherwise, one of these days, one is going to wake up and find the news on Doordarshanbeing read in Japanese with Hindi sub-titles, or something ghastly like that.

Breast Fest

The most famous part of New Orleans is the historic French Quarter. And in the French Quarter, it’s Bourbon Street. It’s a festival out there every night, with the crowds often breaking into spontaneous dance to the world’s best jazz music that wafts out of the bars. Girlie bars (when the man holding up a sign reading “Bottomless Girls” sees my lady friend staring, he quickly flips it to show “Bottomless Men”) jostle for space with jazz pubs and Cajun eateries and voodoo halls (where, unfortunately, my companions refuse to enter or let me). At a street corner, a dozen ponytailed musclemen rev their monster Harley-Davidsons impassively, waiting for the road to clear so they can take off in formation. A young waiter in a Creole joint tells me that ever since he read the Bhagwat Gita, he’s been working three jobs to save enough money to visit India.

A nightly ritual begins. Male and female revellers are standing on the first-floor balcony of a bar, glasses in hand, when suddenly, a group of men on the street look up and notice the women. They start throwing colourful bead necklaces at a girl on the balcony. A crowd gathers. “Oh, white shirt, white shirt,” the crowd pleads, “Show us your breasts, show us your breasts!” At first, she laughingly refuses, but the crowd is persistent. Once she even retreats inside, out of sight, but the groans from the streets draw her out again. “Oh please, oh please!” they shout. “Just once, show us your tits!” By now she’s as loaded with beads as a Tamil politician with flowers, and as we watch, the adulation and persistence weaken her resolve. Her boyfriend looks on, himself drugged by this pagan worship, and as the chants rise to a crescendo, she gives in, blushing, lifting her T-shirt to reveal two perfect hemispheres. Cheers and flashbulbs and caps thrown up in the air, to end what is far more a celebration than a fleshhunt.