Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Account of Rajesh Vijaybhaskar, M.Sc

This is a fiction piece I wrote in November as a part of a creative writing course.

My name is Rajesh Vijaybhaskar. I am by profession an assistant professor at the Illustrious Institute of Technology (an occupation listed under the Dangerous Professions Act of 1988). The head of my department is Dr. Premila Vincent, popularly known among the students as the Old Hag, not necessarily, I think a point of opprobrium. She is a scholar of seemingly high achievements, as her doctorates suggest, and much given to the expression, "The Department comes first, Vijaybhaskar". I attach no particular meaning to this remark.

At 10 on the morning of Wednesday, November 3, I entered room 356 for the purpose of instructing the fourth batch in Basic Statistics, one of the subjects for which I have been engaged by Dr. Premila Vincent. There were present Agarwal, Babykutty, Chatterjee, Gunashekhara, Kumar, Latif, Mishra, Ravi Teja, Sharma, Schweinsteiger, Tamilselvan and Zohrab. Singh, who has, I am told, a fractured leg, was absent. It should be explained that even though I have listed out the names of my students in the alphabetical order of their surnames, that is not the order in which the students were seated on this occasion. It should be noticed that almost all of the female students were seated in the front rows and Tamilselvan, the student whom I am now accused of assaulting, was in the middle row. The last row was shared by Gunashekhara, our Sri Lankan exchange student and Ravi Teja, a cretin. I do not have the slightest inkling that these facts will be of any bearing upon this case, but I have lavishly furnished them for the sake of completeness.

I walked into the class to find the following quote scrawled across the board by the professor who had previously occupied the room. It went: "Mimicry reveals something in so far as it is distinct from what might be called an itself that is behind". The quote had created a considerable excitement and restlessness in the students, though of varied kinds.

"Today", I remarked, taking up my Davis and Pecar, "we shall focus our energies on problem solving which involve the population confidence interval", and I told them at once that if there were to be anymore of that groaning they would do nothing but solve problems involving the Poisson curve for the next one month. It is my experience as an assistant professor of some years' standing, that if groaning is not checked immediately, it may swell to enormous proportions. I make it my business to stamp on it with hob-nailed boots.

Mishra, a fair boy with glasses, remarked that it would not be possible to do problems on the Poisson curve for the next one month, and on being asked why not, he replied that there were only three more weeks for the semester to close upon us. This was true, and realising that the numbers were against me, I made no reply. I proceeded to write a problem on the blackboard, a sample problem which I felt would prepare my students for their end semester examinations.

"A researcher determines that a margin of error (or sampling error, e) of no more than plus or minus 0.05 units is desired, along with a 98 percent confidence interval. Calculate the sample size, n".

Agarwal promptly replied "Eighty seven". I enquired of him how, unless he was the next Ramanujan in the making, he imagined he could produce the answer without troubling to so much as set a pen to paper. He said, "I saw the answer in the back pages of the book". This reply caused a great deal of laughter, which I suppressed with an iron hand.

I should have spoken sharply to Agarwal, but at at this moment I noticed that in the bench right ahead of him, Gunashekhara appeared to be feasting on a small piece of cheesecake, causing considerable excitement. I ordered him to stand up.

"Gunashekhara, you are not perhaps quite used to our Indian ways, and hence I shall refrain from punishing you for this deviation of etiquette; but please understand that I will not have eating of foodstuff in my class. You did not come here to eat, but to learn. If you pay attention and work hard I may not despair of teaching you something, but if you do not wish to learn you might as well as go back to your country".

Mishra, without being given permission to speak, cried excitedly, "He cannot, sir. Didn't you know? His father was chased out of Sri Lanka in some big revolution or something. A big man with a moustache and a cap chased him for three kilometres and he had to escape in a small boat. He is lucky to have made it here to Chennai. It is true, sir. You ask him. Gunashekhara got hit by a falling branch on the small of his back, didn't you Guna? And his sister- at least I think it was his sister-"

That will do, Mishra", I said. "Who threw that?"

I am, I hope, not a spoilsport, but I will not tolerate the throwing of paper rockets or other missiles in my class. This sort of thing has to be struck down with great vengeance and furious anger or work becomes impossible. I accordingly warned the boy responsible that another offence would mean an imposition. He had the impertinence to ask what sort of an imposition. I told him in clear terms that it would be an imposition that would make him wish he had not taken my course, and if he wished to know the exact details he had only to throw another rocket to find out. He thereupon threw another rocket.
I confess that at this I lost patience and threatened to keep the entire class in for at least three more hours if I had any more trouble. I proceeded to solve the problem.

It was not until I had spent fifteen minutes working out the problem on the board that I realised that I had worked on the assumption that the confidence interval was 89 percent, rather than 98. This led me to an impasse. Some one from the back whistled. I at once whipped around and demanded to know who had made the infernal noise. Latif suggested that it might have been Tamilselvan whistling in his sleep. I was about to reprimand Latif for his impertinence when I noticed that Tamilselvan was indeed asleep and had in fact, according to Chatterjee, been asleep since the beginning of the period. Mishra said, "He has not missed much anyway".

I then threw my Davis and Pecar. It has been suggested that it was intended to hit Tamilselvan, but nothing could be further away from the truth. It is an entirely false assumption. I never wake sleeping students by throwing books at them, as hundreds of students who have passed through the doors of the Department in the college will be able to ascertain. I intended to hit Mishra, and it was a tragedy I shall always regret that I did not hit him right on the nose. Blinded by my anger, I believe, my aim was compromised and Tamilselvan was struck. I have had, as I have told Dr. Premila Vincent, a great deal to put up with Mishra, and no one who knows the boy would blame me for the attempt to inflict some physical violence on him. It is indeed an accepted maxim in the staff room that physical violence is the only way to deal with Mishra to obtain any desirable result; to this Dr. Premila Vincent some time ago added a clause that the boy be deprived of his spectacles before being assaulted.

I do not blame myself for the unfortunate stunning of Tamilselvan. It was an accident. I did all I could for the boy when it was discovered (I think by Schweinsteiger) that he had been rendered unconscious. I immediately summoned Dr. Premila Vincent, who then summoned the ambulance. We agreed that concealment was impossible and that I must give a full account of the events to the police if they came asking. Meanwhile the work of the Department was to go on. Tamilselvan himself would have wished it. Dr Premila Vincent added that in any case the Department should come first.

I have made this statement after being duly, cautioned, of my own free will and in the presence of witnesses. I wish only to add that the boy is now none the worse for the blow, and has indeed shown increased zeal in his studies since the incident.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sachin and the Burglar

This was a flash fiction piece I wrote in November for a creative writing course.

It was 3:30 a.m.

The burglar paused outside the window, pipe wrench in hand. Light filtered through the drawn curtains, but it was the hesitant mumbling from within that held him hesitant.

Then, he gently, very expertly, opened the window. A harsh, coarse voice said, "Tendulkar's score now stands at 241".

Four people were hunched about the television. Father, mother, son and daughter. The floor was littered with crumbs of various delicacies gulped down during the course of an innings.

"Agarkar cover drives for a two", sighed Richie Benaud.
"Who is bowling?", said the burglar excitedly, stepping in to the room.
"Lee", said the whole family, like one man, without looking up.
"Ayila!", exclaimed the burglar.

Searching the house, he packed up the most portable valuables and was looking for more when a loud harmonius groan came from the vicinity of the television.

"Wat's up"?, he cried, rusing in. "Is he out?"
"Agarkar. Clean bowled by that beast Lee", sobbed the mother, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief.
"That's the front door", said the father. "Someone answer it".

No one answered it. "Gillespie bowling", announced Benaud.

"I suppose I'll have to go", sighed the burglar. A large cry of discontentment arouse when he opened the door.
"What's wrong here?", asked the policeman sternly.
"The score crossed 700 and Ganguly has declared the innings over", murmured the burglar in a hoarse voice.
"Oh man. That sucks!", exclaimed the policeman, rushing in.

And at 5:45 a.m, the blear-eyed family dragged itself to bed, the policeman, nervously gazing about for the SI, back to his beat, and the burglar went home, having forgotten his loot.

"Anyhow", he muttered, as he climbed wearily in to his bed. "I don't care. Seven hundred and five is going to take some catching".

Monday, January 3, 2011

Where is the USP?

“But why?”, asked John.

It was a question he had been meaning to ask for a long time. It had been on the tip of his tongue for so long that it had set up a Victorian mansion and bred its own children right there. Like wine, Scotch whiskey and certain brands of cheese, the question gained potency over its long period under the wraps. For a question consisting of just two monosyllabic words, it rocked the house. It sent papers flying out through the window and made lesser mortals quiver. Heavenly powers moved the doomsday clock to within a minute of apocalypse.

The Absolute-SuperSonic Film Corporation had, over the years, established itself as one of the leading houses of the art (or what of left of it) called cinema. Their rise to the top of the industry had been powered by the iron rule of its head honcho, President M. He was rumoured to be as bad-tempered, loud and greedy as a gaggle of geese and could strip a tax-man of his wits faster than a priest could strip a choir boy.

Approximately seven and a half minutes before John released his lethal query, President M had been describing in detail the minor changes he thought would look good in the Corporation’s latest project, a musical. Apart from the usual inclusion of a cabaret and a skating ring, President M had a major bomb to drop that day.

“In our latest project, I feel we should cut out the music entirely”.

And then, John dropped his bomb. A question sure to go in to company folklore, a Prometheus-esque act, something on which the major poets would write epic tragedies. The question took the room by storm. President M quivered and dropped the beef sandwich he was munching. His secretaries took their fingers off their typewriters. Weathermen in distant weather stations checked the skies for signs of an impending thunderbolt. The security goons moved their palms to their hip holsters like one security goon.

“But why ?”, John repeated. “Why would anyone want to cut the music out of a musical ?”.

President M had an orderly mind and he classified the situation as only the fifth most worried he had been when someone asked him “but why ?”, though the top four had been screeching, delirious women. President M was stunned and momentarily tried to find an explanation.

“Because our lyricists are a bunch of doofus who cannot rhyme love with dove.They are a bunch of no goods and I do not think they should be writing anything for a movie. What good is the music ?”, asked the President impassioned. His assistants nodded and made a note of it. His secretaries were quickly back to work.

“But how do you make a musical without music ?”, persisted John.

“Let me ask you, young man. How is our music different from the scores of scores you hear elsewhere? What sets it apart? Where is the USP ?”.

The assistants got down on the floor in search of the USP. The attender pulled out the drawers to check for the elusive item. The cry “Where is the USP” rang throughout the room and some of it even managed to seep out through the windows, doors and the ventilation. Everyone was wonder struck at how emphatically the president put it.

“Where is the USP ?”, he bellowed and beamed, ecstatic at yet another victory at a verbal duel.

John could feel retort after retort avalanching themselves on the tip of his tongue. He knew he should let them out. He wanted to. He loved music and musicals. But it was President M who signed the cheques. The thought of further risking the displeasure and being summarily dismissed appalled him. For there is no spiritual anguish like that of a man who, having grown accustomed to opening the crackling envelope at the end of each month and fingering the warm cheque, reaches out one day and finds it is not there. The thought of Absolute-SuperSonic ceasing to be a fountain of gold and becoming just a rather portly man with a awful sideburns turned his spine to jelly. Maybe he would go down in history as the company’s Boswell’s clergyman. Fragmentary, pale, momentary; almost nothing. Meekly, he inherited his seat.

John swallowed the retorts knocking on his teeth. They were many in number. Hire new lyricists if the current crop is bad. Throw money at it. Improve the settings and theme of the projects. What about the previous musicals the company released? Were not they created by the same team? How will the critics view the current releases we have when they learn that the music has been disbanded? Create an USP for itself. Do something. Do not take the easy way out. Do something to keep the music.

Wiser counsels prevailed and John retreated to studying his fingernails as President M rambled on about the need for sensuous passion in the next project.