I could hear the hubbub from afar. The audibility grew more and more as I drew near the cabin in the lab. I opened the main gate and turned the corner to the left. The first sight that met my eyes was that of three lecturers ensconced leisurely in chairs around a rectangular table, one lab assistant sitting on the side chair doing some computer work and one more lecturer standing akimbo behind one of the chairs towards the door of the cabin. With an almirah standing in right corner along the partition abutting the lab it was difficult now for even one more chair to make room in this 6X5 cabin sandwiched between two labs whose doors opened in front of each other letting the cabin play a mediator. Before I could become part of this quintet I heard one of them, the youngest, the standing, say, “hello Ulhas Sir” with a welcoming smile on his face and holding out his right hand towards me.
I paralleled the obligation of shaking hand with him with the inquisition, “What is going on? I could hear the noise in the corridor even.”
“Sir, why you are always caught unawares”, he said as if questioning my sociability and then instead of telling me something just sniggered. I looked at the lecturer sitting across the table with inquisitive eyes and turned back. He had long scampered off. “What you are doing?” came another question from across the table. And then another, “where do you live?” He was Mr. Sumit Handa, lecturer in computers department aged around 31, same as me. “How long will you persist with this circumlocution of yours? Will you please tell me what this fuss is about and why each one of you is hell bent upon making me feel like a straggler?”
When I was busy speaking, somewhere halfway down the sentence one of the junior lecturers stood up offering me the chair and beckoned the lab assistant to bring in one more and try the impossible task of accommodating it. I said no and continued with the sentence but he insisted. I sat down. “It is a big news and big day”, Mr. Handa for the first time strayed away from his interrogative posture. Lab assistance brought one chair from the lab and somehow managed to stuff it, of course only after his and my chair had to be moved from their original positions. Junior lecturer parked himself down.
“But what it is?” I was at a loss to figure out that big thing of Mr. Handa. He responded by saying, “why be impatient, you will get to know.” All this while Mr. Shaleen Khatri, one year senior to me, sitting on chair facing Mr. Handa was silent trying hard to endure blows of grinning eyes and a celebratory ambiance (at least I thought so) in the cabin that had diluted to some extent with my arrival. That is one main disadvantage of your being perceived as serious. People become formal even at the sounds of your footsteps.
Mr. Khatri seemed absolutely at a loss to come to terms with a situation that had him at the centre as the cynosure of all the eyes. Despite not being unknown to me he did not utter even a single word. Nor did he seem to be taking any part in the hubbub that had now been replaced by a mysterious quietude. At this time, I don’t know whether it was the sense of duty or he had grown bored with my being there the junior lecturer stood up again and took leave. “OK Sir”, was all I could hear. I instructed lab assistant to restore the chair back to its original position so as to create some breathing space in the cabin. While chair was being moved I had to stand up to make way. It was then that my eyes happened to fall upon a book on the computer table of lab assistant. As is my wont, I began to fiddle with it. “Data Mining and Warehouse”, was the title inscribed in big fonts on the cover. I picked it up, leafed through it and put it back on the table. Mr. Handa whose efforts to stifle his chuckle were evident couldn’t take it anymore as he burst into a stroke of laughter.
“Now what happened to you? You have been constantly being funny and here Mr. Khatri, an otherwise quite a hilarious personality is tongue-tied. What’s the point”, I with a shade of amazement, asked?
At this Mr. Khatri stood up, stretched himself over me, reached to the lab assistant’s table, got hold of the book, sat down and placed it on his lap. “Sir, shall I tell you something. The man sitting by your left is a niggard, absolute niggard.” Mr. Handa broke himself open. “If I were in his place I would be on cloud nine and now you wouldn’t be in this enquiring mould but munching on pakoras”, Mr. Handa was still some distance away from the enunciation. He was busy enacting what it is like to put a pakora in mouth.
My patience was being tested. “Ok, now that you have had your pakora, drink your water and tell me what was it that had even Vinay (junior lecturer) in such a boisterous mood”, I tried to remain adamant in my query though honestly somewhere I was thinking like to hell with Mr. Handa and his ‘big thing’ and itching to scram.
A large portion of the table was now naked but for a jug of water with no glass around and a newspaper pronouncing Mr. Kapil Sibbal’s revolutionary approaches towards the education. Mr. Khatri who was still silent lifted his right hand whose reach fell short of the jug of water. I got hold of jug and pushed it towards Mr. Khatri. He clasped the jug in the cupped palm of his right hand while craning his neck up, held it up close to his mouth and began to pour water into his throat. The sound of gurgling lost in the din of blades of fan. Some of the water as it came out of the jug fell on the collar of Mr. Khatri and coursed down to book. He put jug back on the table and wiped the book off the drops of water by his handkerchief. It was the name of the author on the book that he was so keen to dry up a soon as possible.
“Sir, Mr. Khatri has written a book”, Mr. Handa divulged the secret. At the right time. I don’t think I would have stayed there any longer. Before I could settle myself in the crumples of this unexpected bolt from the blue unraveling he continued, “we have been sort of celebrating it, congratulating him for this extraordinary feat since morning and he, sir, as you can see, is reacting to our wishes as if nothing has happened.” “What?” Finally I managed to mouth a word. I couldn’t hold my astonishment in check. “Yes, Mr. Khatri has written a book, a full fledged book”, Mr. Handa reinforced what he had said a moment ago with a degree of aplomb.
“A book sir book”, he said again gaping and went on, “now sir tell me, is writing a book a child’s play?” In all probabilities it was not a child’s play. Book, what is a book? A collection of pages housing words or some stray sentences squeezed between covers to be read and forgotten. Salman Rushdie says books have it in them to effect a change if not in the reader, at least in the author. Sometimes even the reader is a different person after having had an encounter with the book. But Mr. Khatri’s book is a technical one, to be precise a technical cum management one. So what? Book is also communion between a writer and reader wherein writer uses various forms of writing to drive his point home regardless of the genre book may belong to. In the process writer draws from myriad sources, adduces existing material and makes his argument. So what if it is a technical book. It is the author’s take on the subject. I really believe book is nothing short of a daughter for a writer who when gets married i.e. it is published inflicts a nostalgic pain for no longer will she be there to be played with on the heart of writer. But which father would want to have his daughter remained unmarried like an unpublished manuscript gathering dust in a corner. That would be catastrophic for a writer.
Book is not just ink dropped on pages but an image that acquires its shape when eyes take the blank page head on, mind takes the liking to road and deep recesses of the research remain lightened irrespective of rocky and slippery assent and descent. But is it that easy?
That is a relative question. Not easy to answer. So Mr. Khatri must have undergone some changes while coursing the slippery assent and descent. Did he? Yes, he did.
“Actually sir I have a brother who helped me with it.” Finally Mr. Khatri broke his silence in his rough tone and brought me back from the conflict ridden, bumpy and exacting world of books into the smooth and small cabin where first book by Mr. Khatri was now being bestowed upon with the honour of two inquisitive eyes flowing through it. I had never known Mr. Khatri to be as polite. What really had rattled me was what prompted Mr. Khatri to break the silence with a sentence that had “actually” as its very first word. Remove the ‘actually’ and sentence sounds like a manifestation of modesty from an intelligent first time author. But the use of ‘actually’ endows the sentence with a sense of guilt as if sprung up from something amiss.
Mr. Handa handed me the book and asked me to congratulate Mr. Khatri for having become the first lecturer in computers science department to have his name inscribed on a book. I ladled upon Mr. Khatri a big and weighty word of congrats. Mr. Khatri struggled to smile in response to my heartfelt but riddled with peradventure wish.
“So let’s celebrate Mr. Khatri”, bellowed Mr. Handa with a refreshed energy and added, “Mr. Khatri, it will be too tough for interviewers to hold your resume in hands. One needs strong shoulders and bespectacled eyes to bear the weight of a book.” More than a sense of having achieved something rarefied it was a thin silted blush that Mr. Khatri decided to confront Mr. Handa’s appreciation, genuine or not I can’t say, with.
“Sir, have you filled the income tax returns. I am thinking of winding up this hassle a soon as possible”, Mr. Khatri tried to engage me in his favorite topic of salary and taxes as I scrutinized his authored book. Now I was beginning to have a sense of the cause of Mr. Khatri’s discomfiture. The chapters and language in the book reminded me of some another book. How could that happen? Was this what all this hoopla was about? Perhaps this is exactly why hubbub was more vulgar than celebratory. He was playing down all the hubris he had the right (who could have contested that) to wear up his sleeve for being the first in the department for having ventured into uncharted territory. Mr. Khatri perhaps knew this all the more.
“Sir, how long did it take you to write this book”? I enquired. Honestly, now that I had some sense of truth my question was more of a swipe on Mr. Khatri than a genuine inquisition. Ever since he had joined the college Mr. Khatri had come to known as a person having a boorish undertone in his colloquial language and revulsion for any kind of reading beyond the lecture preparation for class. He was almost a stranger to the college library and Internet usage was limited to checking out emails and occasional search. English had never been among Mr. Khatri’s far fetched propensities let alone one of the preferred languages in which he had decided to author his book. “Sir, actually it took me more than three months to put together this book.” Mr. Khatri somehow came up with an answer though naïve but couldn’t jettison “actually” once again.
“So finally here is your three months of work or shall I say hard work in my hand and now thousands of the students will be benefiting from it”, I said waving the copy to him. “But sir, why are you so unresponsive and modest. After all it is one of the greatest days of your life. You are one of those utterly fortunate rare persons who get to see their hard work in form of a book. How many people do achieve this distinction? Don’t we read Galvin, Kanitkar, Tanenbaum, Balaguruswamy, Sumitabha Das etc etc. Now you too will be read by students. It’s your baby, what if it did not take full 9 months”, I said trying to chuckle and flung book toward him. “Sir, the occasion warrants a grand party in Nirulas, a restaurant near by.” As I exhorted Mr. Khatri to celebrate his book Mr. Khatri seemed assaying to keep his poise and let all the cringing thoughts hovering in his head in check.
Mr. Khatri is a convivial personality. He always makes it a point to wish everyone he happens to bump in to in his distinctive tone verging on boorishness but also nestling in it a tinge of affection regardless of the rank of lecturer.
Let me give you an account of his one run in with none other than the head of the department of computers science department that too barely a few weeks into his joining this college. This incident will acquaint you with at least one more side of his demeanor which shows he is not a pushover. But today the same Mr. Khatri had morphed into an embodiment of meekness. When asked to draw a list of all the new LED monitors bought last month with the help of lab assistant neither did Mr. Khatri say no nor did he do. When summoned next morning to Head of Department’s office for having defied the orders he wounded up the entire ensued episode that had its moment of Mr. Khatri’s hard worked genteel conversation skills with a line that did not go down well with Head of Department (HOD). “I haven’t joined this institution as a clerk but as a lecturer.” While disclosing his actual designation to HOD Mr. Khatri did not take any help of any ‘actually’. If it were not for the equipoise of elderly HOD Mr. Khatri could have been a distant memory for this college by now. Today a book, his own book had made this fairly independent person so hemmed in. It seems for Mr. Khatri writing was much easier than reading.
We all know the weight of a printed word but in Mr. Khatri’s case it was a full fledged book that had him turned overnight into a paragon of docility. For all his otherwise blabber-mouthed comportment all of a sudden Mr. Khatri was finding it difficult to find words he could chip in with. His being tongue-tied was redolent of his uncomfortable relationship with a book that was his.
Mr. Khatri belongs to an educated family. Having a professor father and a housewife mother Mr. Khatri had the advantage of a good education. Today he is reaping the benefits of that good education. He knows the importance of a heavy resume in as thin sliced a sector as education. The weight of as serious a word as ‘book’ in the academic sector can catapult you from staffroom to a special cabin to an individual office. The leapfrog can come much sooner. And still at the end of the day it is resume not the book that matters. “You need a thappa (stamp)” as once he had let us in on the ultimate secret in the same cabin. His overemphasis on the tail of the word had everyone in the fits of laughter. “Pppppa, pppppa, thappa”, he had repeated. Back then I didn’t have any clue that as academic an activity as a book can be called thappa. It is in this pursuit of having a thappa on his resume that Mr. Khatri, perhaps took to book writing. I was yet to satiate my queries about how he managed to get his book published and how many lots of book are being distributed and in which zones that phone rang. It was our HOD. Lab assistant took the call and handed the receiver to me.
“Good morning Ulhas”
“Hello sir, good morning”, I wished back.
“Morning, where are you”, HOD said in his husky voice.
“I am in the cabin sir”, I answered.
“Who else is with you?” The question was more of an effort to confirm his some doubt.
At this point lab assistant released himself from the grip of the computer and walked into the lab.
“Mr. Handa and Mr. Khatri”, I retorted.
“Oh, have you seen Mr. Khatri’s book”, he asked in a tone as if he wanted answer to be only yes.
“Yes sir, I have cursorily run my eyes through it”, I avoided a direct affirmation.
“Did something strike you”? HOD seemed taking more than ordinary interest in Mr. Khatri’s book.
“Not anything in particular. I just unfurled some pages. Didn’t look much…..”
HOD interrupted me mid course and blurted out.
“He is good editor, not an easy job.”
The luxury of phone had already allowed our elderly HOD, a man of laconic disposition, a far more discretion and expansion that going any farther seemed to him giving me a peek to his gingerly guarded personality.
“Do one thing Ulhas. Don’t forget to see Dean before you leave college today. OK, don’t forget.” With this he hung up the phone.
HOD’s phone had almost broken the rhythm of our conversation. During my conversation with HOD Mr. Handa had taken leave of us adducing his lecture in a class.
Now we were two of us in the cabin, alone and immune to any speck of disturbance. One hour after I had a class. I didn’t have any clue about Mr. Khatri’s time table. “Will you have a cup of tea”, I asked Mr. Khatri. He was in a pensive mood. “I hope you don’t have any class, I am placing order but we have a party due”, I did not wait for Mr. Khatri’s nod and ordered two cups of tea. Turning to him again I stirred the dreaded subject of book, once again. “So… sir, how are you feeling”, and added, “it must be a strange sensation.” ‘It will take a quite a while to get normal, for this extraordinary feeling to die down. After all now you have a book under your name. It’s not a small thing nor is it something that people do every time.” I went on with my monologue without letting Mr. Khatri to say anything.
“You know sir when Mr. Amartya Sen was doing his graduation he wrote such a good and insightful thesis that later that very thesis was turned into a book. Though I don’t recall the name of the book or the year it came out. And yes, our Dean sir too has a couple of books about English grammar in his kitty. It was a genuine effort to provide a new understanding of English language to graduate students.” At this I slackened my pace and continued, “Sir, now Dean sir has somebody to hold candles to him.” Every fiber of Mr. Khatri’s visage suggested that he was just waiting for the tea to come as soon as possible so that he could save himself from my waffle. I had plenty of stories to tell.
“When I was doing graduation we had a sir who taught us Artificial Intelligence. His name was Professor Majumdar. He was a Bengali. Sometimes when he was in his spirits he would address the student he was interacting with as bandhu. So we began to call him bandhua majdoor. Bandhua because he would often say “bandhu, is tarah nahin” with over emphasis on ‘bandhu’ and a light smile interspersed with ‘is tarah nahin’ and majdoor because he would toil hard all day along in his cabin. In a way he was true to the precise meaning of the term bandhua majdoor in the sense that he had been held captive by his passion for work. But this was the kind of slavery he must be finding a pleasure in. We never saw him prattling with other teachers. Surprisingly even after being so reclusive when in class he never ceased to be jubilant and sometimes even hilarious. For him the subject was not a syllabus he wanted to run through once but a story he wanted to unravel with all its twists and turns. Though his teaching methods had us in some sort of surmising about what he could have been up to in addition to all the canards floating about his research we never thought how lucky we were to be with him as his students.
It was only when I got to lay my hands on a hardcover book titled “The Ideas of Mind, The Vision of Brain” in a local bookstore I recognized the true worth of our bandhua majdoor. Though getting to interact with him was always an opportunity to sharpen the mind and feel elated at having talked something worthwhile it was from that day onwards as ordinary human beings with limitations we were we began to hang onto every word he dropped from his lips. He was a celebrity now; he was the author of an acclaimed book.” I could see the nodding head of Mr. Khatri having difficulty in putting up with my vaunt of bandhua majdoor but after all I was sitting before an author so I continued, this time in an inquisitive tone giving Mr. Khatri an opportunity to speak. “How did you go about researching such a vast subject” fully knowing in three months time with so many engagements Mr. Khatri couldn’t have finished a book of this nature in the time he had claimed.
“I didn’t dwell that deeper into it. This is just an effort to help students study the subject more comprehensively and in a language they don’t have to rush to dictionary every so often.” Mr. Khatri somehow could manage a sentence though wobbling was there to be felt. “Sir, wasn’t it a bit problematic managing time considering your M. Tech, lectureship and a baby at home. You must have been mistaken for a dweeb by your family.” Though my question entailed in it a possible answer, for Mr. Khatri it was too difficult to even pretend to be in agreement with me. Rubbing his chin with the fingers of his right hand he took a deep breath and came up with a slight ‘no’ and carried the tail of his answer with an inevitable “aannnnnn” before issuing from his mouth, “but sir, no pain no gain.” The ejaculation of an age old adage dovetailed with the moment.
“Yes sir, no pain, no gain”, I nodded my head in affirmation.
“These canteenwallas. They always forget. I have a lecture sir.” The chagrin was dripping off the yawping sentence.
Before we could whinge further about the ways of canteenwallas, Rawat was already there with a thermos bottle and two paper cups. He poured us tea, invited us to Uttaranchal as he does every time he has enough time to spare and buzzed off. Between the slurps we continued with ‘our talking’ or shall I say Mr. Khatri’s first interview which though was increasingly becoming too intruding he was importunate enough not to have let his guard slipped down.
“You still are here.”
Mr. Handa broke our conversation.
Clock was announcing fifty minutes past nine. For next two hours I was to be busy with final year students for the internal viva of their seminars. I once again wished Mr. Khatri’s book a success and scrammed.
“Hello, so ready for the viva”, I proceeded with an air of a professor, an epithet one earns in our college for being too priggish and prissy regardless of the level at which one works. So we have HODs, lecturers, lab assistants and even electricians who are addressed as professors, yes, of course behind the back barring in the case of last two categories. In this madness only the real professors are often left wanting to hear the designation years of their hard work earned them.
I had asked the class to put together a file running into at least fifty pages about the subject they had their seminar on. When I started viva I was shell shocked to find out that despite my being utter pressing and persistent about the structure of the file a majority of files did not meet the basic criterion set by university. All that I got to see in the name of file was an assortment of some written material culled from Internet predominantly from ‘Wikipedea’. That was the kind of research on their respective topics today’s engineers under the aegis of lecturers like me indulge in. Even in the last year of their graduation they were credulous enough to believe that every single word written on Internet is true and slothful enough to have taken no trouble to crane their neck beyond this information technology miracle.
So here they were with dollops of material on their respective topics picked up from the net. When asked to prove the authenticity of the material or of the concept they were trying to get through me most seemed like log of the woods transuding a look that was far removed from the countenance of an engineering graduate. My disappointed was assuaged a little when I ran into Jatin who not only did have a genuine file but also had an inclination towards his topic which is so rare in thousands of colleges across the country. What he told me about his report is worth telling here.
Instead of simply going to the net and google his topic he went to those in whose hands the string of his topic rested. To study the ‘Satellite systems’ he sought interviews from the ISRO scientists, succeeded in getting one or two, gleaned the information as they told him, visited the IIT Delhi, met the Professor Madhav Murthy and had a long disquisition with him, took notes and referred to books all these polymaths suggested him. Besides this he also used Internet to make sure if he can chance upon something vital. He trawled online versions of some communication journals backed by authentic sources. In between all these he did not forget to drop in on me to have a discourse about the topic, what he was busy with and what he had been up to. The result was that our formal viva voce took the shape of a discussion that had both of us enthralled and exalted. When I asked him how many of the pages of his 51 page file can he claim to own as a final year student he told me that a three fourth of his report is an account of his rendezvouses with professors and scientists and rest was divided into a basic detailed description of ‘Satellite systems’ and what he as a student found interesting wiz-a-wiz all the possibilities hovering around the satellites.
Given that he belonged to computers and still evinced a keen interest in communication he told me that had he been not assigned this topic he still probably would have gone around the same way but may be with a slightly different result. I hope Jatin was fortunate enough to have found his métier.
“Couldn’t you have inspired some of your classmates to do the same?” On being asked this he chortled and said, “when you can’t, how can I?”
“My advices run the risk of getting obscured in the din of didactical teacherly homilies.”
I tried to counter him.
“Those who don’t care know they will get passing marks and those who do they do their bit. Almost everyone will get.” He left the sentence uncompleted.
“Degree, a thappa.”
After having finished this exercise as I was on my way to canteen to have a cup of tea I wondered about this strange relationship that a student and teacher share. Who does teach whom? And what is there to be taught? If I make something they find a bit complex a little easy for them, is that what teaching is. Or if I give them something as Jatin said what was not there but ought to have been. When everything is available in books or on Internet what does a teacher suppose to do. May be a bit less telling and bit more talking can do the wonders. Needless to say the steed of talking always needs equestrian of doing to tread the distance. As I ordered a cup of tea a canteen boy asked me “cheeni kum ya jyada.” I said, above average. He knew what I meant.
Quite unlike other lecturers I can trace my relationship with Dean sir from the days when he was an English teacher in my alma mater. There he was the first teacher I had run into. I still vividly remember the very first lecture of my graduation in engineering. I was only ten minutes late and expecting a class still in the process of trying to acclimatize with strange ambience and learn new time table. Anarchy, at least for first fifteen minutes was the only thing I could have thought when it came to first lecture for a new course in a new college.
But here I see somewhere around 25 to 35 students of total 60 sitting in absolute silence listening to a middle aged teacher. I stepped in a bit and sought the permission. He turned towards me, sprawled a kind of tranquility on his face and said in his distinctive masculine voice, “why not, it’s your class, not mine.” I felt as if my auditory sensation had experienced something new.
Ever since that first hour of first day he was with us for a good one year teaching us not a subject, not a chapter but living itself. It was during this time that I had come to know him as a level headed man with love galore in his heart. What else a teacher does need to be a teacher? When on the last day of our graduation I went to him seeking his blessings he bestowed upon me the honor of having a cup of tea with me in his drawing room.
That was the last time I had seen him before joining a company. Five years ago when I joined this college he was obviously not the first person I bumped into. On very second day of my joining when Dean of the college had convened a meeting of recently joined lecturers I was a bit late though not ten minutes. This is not an excuse. I really had no idea of convention room. To my utter astonishment, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I happened to saw him addressing an audience of some 15 to 20 lecturers. He turned his gaze towards me wearing the same tranquility and said, “It’s your meeting, not mine.”
After my bewilderment had sunk in what really surprised me was his equanimity at seeing me. The thought of why didn’t he seem happy and amazed at seeing his old student a good ten years after cringed me. Later he called me to his office, enquired after and told that he knew I was to join here. My application had gone through his hands. So it is a fairly long association with its share of interludes.
From behind the glass door I could see Dean sir, a man around sixty five now, same white hair neatly combed backwards, immaculately dressed, itching his bulged outward left brow with the index finger of his left hand and scrawling something with his right hand on a paper placed in the centre of the big table in front of him. The spectacles were resting nearby on his left. The squeak of door as I opened it made him look upwards.
“May I come in sir”, I completed the formality.
“Yes, yes Ulhas, how are you, be seated”, he welcomed me in while putting on his specs.
“Thanks sir. I was told by HOD sir to see you.” I said immediately after settling me down in chair.
“Yes, weeeeee”, he let out the tail of the ‘we’ for quite a time precisely in film actor Kulbhushan Kharbanda’s style though neither his voice nor his intonation bore any similarity to Kharbanda’s. Then he cut the sentence mid course and queried, “how many general books do we have in our library that tell us about India?”
I certainly did not expect this question. Neither was I a librarian nor had I anything to do with the working of library. But then I remembered my conversation with our HOD in which I had pointed out the fact of our library drawing a literal blank when it came to books about our own country. I had argued that we may be a technical institution but yet we can’t afford our library to be a place which houses just a collection of books required in the curriculum according to university apart from some other regular hackneyed titles. We need to work towards creating a place to help students venture into a wide range of subjects to broaden their ideas and thinking. Our library can go a long way in taking students away from ‘what is important’ streak in their demeanor to ‘what it is’ trait in their personality towards their subject or anything that catches their fancy.
“Sir, we have few general books in our library but so far as books on or about India or even other books delving into subjects concerning the human behaviors or books every citizen ought to have some idea of are concerned our library falls short of.
“Can you take some time off to give the librarian a list of some books we ought to have? Don’t lend much thought to cost etc., however expensive they may be we will order them.”
“Any genre”, I asked.
“Yes, yes, any genre”, he replied stressing on ‘any’ more than I expected.
“Ok sir”, I said with a glint of admiration for this lively personality.
“And yes, you can add some of your own favorite titles if you want”, he said almost as an afterthought.
“May I go, sir.”
“Yeh, yeh.” He said with a smile on his scholarly face. This man was only ‘yes, yes’ from head to toe. No ‘no’ could have bitten him ever. I am not suggesting that he was a ‘yesman’.
I stood up, turned back and stepped forward.
I was at the door when a full throated voice struck my ears.
“Ulhas, why don’t you publish a paper?”
I turned back.
Crouched before the table Dean Sir was scanning some paper.
Three paces and there I was behind one of the three chairs placed on my side of the table. I dropped my both hands on the edge of the back of the chair placed on his extreme right and struggled to speak anything. All that I could manage was a nonplussed expression and few draggled words like sir, paper etc.
“Nowadays everybody is writing papers, it helps, its five years now”, he said reclining back in his swivel chair, holding an ordinary ball point pen in his right hand.
“Sir, I thought it is too early”, and tried to hurl a thin grin.
“Too early?” He couldn’t believe what I ended up saying in my utter thoughtlessness state of mind.
He leaned forward and shot back, “What did you say, too early. Since when have you become so learned to decide that?”
No longer was he reclined back. This time the tone was that of an old schoolmaster as they depicted in old black and white movies sans moustache. Yet the sprinkling of affection couldn’t have been glossed over.
“But sir, I meant that…”, at this he interrupted me and beckoned to have seat.
I sat down and continued, “Sir, I meant that to be able to write a paper one needs to have a profound knowledge of the subject. Only a deep understanding of the subject can help us look at it from the angle of our choice. I think then only can I have my views on a specific topic.”
“Of course”, he oozed out the affirmation lifting off both his hands from table and then added, “but don’t you think you will grow old if you keep waiting for the day when you will have enough expertise at your disposal to be able to as you say find a new way of glancing at the topic.”
“Sir, here I am not talking about the expertise in terms of traceable but too deep a depth to be plumbed. I hold that unless the knowledge I have doesn’t prepare me to talk about the topic in my own language, the language I can have duly copyright of to contribute to the topic I am discoursing over what is the point in writing a paper, just for the heck of it?”, I had assumed quite a aggressive tone towards the end of my argument.
For a fraction of second a hush descended into the room.
“Ulhas”, Dean Sir breached the hush with a reflective intonation.
“I agree with you and that is precisely how it should be. But that is possible when you have a deep seated love for your subject. Only then will you be able to try, at least try, to walk some distance on its pathway. How many people can claim to have this and I stress on this word this love for their subjects. A very minuscule fraction (he took quite a time to speak these three words). I also know that all these people who are working here as lecturers most of them did not choose this profession. They were brought to this profession by the circumstances of their lives. So they work perfunctorily. Initially they take this as a stop gap arrangement and try their luck here or there. If they get in somewhere they bid goodbye to the lectureship and if they don’t then they reconcile with their job. Now once they have come to terms with their job they proceed further to milk it maximum. And that is possible if you have a resume boasting of some participation in conferences, some published papers, some more degrees and if possible one or more books. This is the truth of 50 to 60% and may be even more of the staff in 90 to 95% of the engineering colleges in our country.” He paused.
Dean sir was alluding to under-employment i.e. a condition wherein the sole aim of being an employee is to earn money regardless of any relationship between the nature of work and himself. A reality, spanning all the professions including art and sports, majority of Indians are plagued by. I know it is not feasible to have everyone in the right profession but being perfunctory to job all along the life is an injustice to not only one’s own self but also to the organization and hence even nation.
“So the entire emphasis is towards amassing these thappas as some people call it when all these should actually be the by products of a more greater process engendered out of an interest and love for the subject”, I interrupted the moment Dean sir stopped to take a sip of water.
“Yes, exactly, but then these lecturers have to run their family. They have kids to be educated. They may not have that deep or even superficial love for their subjects and it is quite naïve to look for it everywhere but they have responsibilities. So when someone tells them to glean these as you said thappas as much as possible to earn as much as possible and secure their jobs they do exactly that. They may not be extraordinary teachers but they are running against the wind. They need the steed of these ……thappas to be able to run.” He had grown quite intense while trying to justify the untenable.
Taking some breaths he recovered his usual equanimity and said in a pianissimo, “and it happens more in low rung colleges where recruitment process is faulty and questionable (pause)….and salary too less.”
“And you said 95% of our colleges are exactly that”, I completed his thought.
Dean Sir remained silent shrouded in a ruminative mood. He just nodded his head. I was wrong. I knew he was not justifying anyone. He was just stating the fact as it is. May be his crumpled eyes behind the specs were tied with the subtleties with the tether of experience. But yet his arguments left me confounded.
The moment he looked at me I pounced upon him with an accusation.
“Are you defending them?” My eyes spoke more vociferously than my lips.
“Of course not, but don’t you think they need sympathy?” for the first time he told me he could be more than 75. His generosity was getting ahead of the reason.
“Who, cheaters?” I gushed forth forgetting for a while the language of euphemisms.
“Don’t think too much Ulhas”, with a chuckle on his face he was back to being 65.
“But sir, just tell me. Isn’t it cheating when you pass off someone other’s work as your own? When you claim to have written a full fledged book when neither does language nor does content belong to you? When you inspire others to do the same by setting an ill example and more importantly by making students study these pale reflections, often replete with mistakes, of genuine books? I don’t repudiate that one doesn’t have the right to get inspired, even influenced by someone provided one can guard his individuality. Immaculate originality is difficult to achieve, I confess”, I reinforced my point.
“Yes it is wrong, its plain plagiarism. A wrong can’t be righted in the name of domestic obligations and responsibilities, never.” Puckering his big brows Dean sir reflected but did not forget to add, “but who cares…..see, what Ph.D. has been reduced to.”
“Not even government!”
“I don’t have an answer.”
At this brooding note he turned his gaze to his extreme left and began to read something from the table calendar.
It read, “The only true gift is a portion of your self-Ralph Waldo Emerson.”
Seeing the situation venturing into a dull, deep, intense but strangely boring discussion could have had Dean Sir suspected of my being jealous (though that was a remote possibility) of those ‘book and paper writers’ I decided to change the gears.
“Sir, you too have written a couple of books and that too in as general a subject as English, still you managed to bring in your own touch to your books. Didn’t you have kids to be educated or I mean, responsibilities?” Oh, what did I do? I was again on the ploughed track.
“Yes, I did but may be I had one more thing,” he paused for a while.
“Love,,, for my subject.”
“Could you have survived without love for your subject, sir?”
“Yes, everybody does. The only difference would have been that instead of books and some papers in my name I would have thappas on my resume.”
He laughed out and added, “I too have started to speak your language.”
“OK Sir, no longer any thappas. Enough of it. But just tell me how did it all happen?” .This time I had succeeded in really changing the gears.
“What?” he was seemingly relieved.
“Oh those books!”
I waited for him to speak.
He took off his specs, stargazed towards wall behind me and began to speak.
“Though my father had initiated me into this language quite early on in my childhood I had a difficulty catching the finer nuances of English grammar. What distanced me even more away was the banal way of teaching which I later found to be such a lustrous language. Grammar books that we had been referring to were too dull and didactic. The liveliness of the language seemed to have wilted under the excruciating sun of bland dictums. I had come to dread an otherwise beautiful and luscious language. Later in life as I wrenched myself out from my inhibitions thanks to a teacher I came to appreciate and as we were saying love the language. I did my graduation in English literature and then post graduation. While in my mid career when I had been teaching English literature for some 15 years my wife began to insist I write a book which can talk and interact with students rather than just telling them. Though I had always wanted to write it was her prodding that had the book started. I revisited my horror days of English and one day sat down to write something absolutely distinguished from grammar books. And I think that is the reason that students did not find my view of grammar the tenets of which we can’t change frightening.”
“I had been thinking about this talking and telling thing a little while ago. Isn’t strange you too said the same thing?” I couldn’t resist the temptation of giving away what was on my mind.
“Really?” he said wearing a semi-amazed look.
Coming back to books I bantered, “so it was your wife who made you a writer, sir.”
“Of course you can’t be a romantic poet while a wife being around”, Dean sir quipped and then went on to add, “just kidding, she has proved to be great soul-mate.”
“But now you are being romantic sir”, I was breaching all the formal cordons.
“You must have written poetry”, I took the breach one step further.
“Yeh, I did, everybody does, in his youth, but not seriously.”
“But your second book…”, he interrupted me here and elucidated.
“That was just an extension of first. Completion is always a far fetched idea. Though I did add another section about poetry there.”
“Was it your own?”
“Are you kidding?” he was confounded at the utter naivety of my question.
“Sir, I know you love poetry. Two lines of your favorite poem”, I entreated.
“I don’t remember any poem now.”
“You are too obstinate, Ulhas.”
Then something struck his mind.
“One minute, I have a book of poems here. My daughter gifted it me. It’s a long time since I last read it.”
He started to trawl for something in his drawer.
“Here it is. An anthology.” He picked his specks, put them on and began to flip the pages.
All the while I was reveling at the child like enthusiasm of this endearing person.
All of a sudden he appeared rejoiced at finding something striking.
“Listen, he is not that famous as all the English poets we often quote here or there. Jibanananda Das was a famous Bengali poet”, he spoke all this while running his eyes though the page he had stuck to.
Then he waved his gaze from the book and said, “his brilliance got overshadowed by Tagore, let me read you something from a poem called “The Moon atop the Field.”
He began to read in his masculine voice.
“Says the moon to me:
The harvest is over,
The sickles have gone blunt,
The hay has been gathered,
The fields are empty,
The cracks in the ground are full of dewdrops;
Why do you stand alone here, looking on?
Endless crops have ripened,
Harvests have gone home,
You have grown old as earth,
The sickle has lost its edge many times
The cracks in the ground have held dewdrops,
The hay has been wound;
Why do you then stand alone atop
The fallow fields, and look on?
Having finished reading he did not give me an opportunity to say anything. He leaned forward and announced, “So shall we disperse now? Enough discussion.”
And then he rubbed the palms of his both hands against each other and exclaimed.
“My paper on “The Idea of Learning as Understanding” has been accepted by Delhi University. So tomorrow I will be off to Delhi”
“Thanks”, and you too start scouring for your own angle.” Once again he reminded me of Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Perhaps age was catching up on him.
“Don’t forget to draw that list of books.”
“Yes sir, you can count on me and thanks for being so frank”
He as he always does said “always welcome” and I walked out of the room.
For so long a time I had been relishing the company of a sexagenarian whose fervor for life and his work seemed so quixotic in an ambiance where mantra was not ‘ye dil maange more’ but ‘ye resume maange more’. The demands of the resume had to be met any way. Though his efforts to defend the lectures caught in the muddy waters of education may have had me fishy about his own work but that would have been blasphemy. He was simply too humanist. I may not have agreed in the least bit with the arguments he put forth but we can’t repudiate the bitter truth that lecturers in educational institutions hanker for these thappas precisely the way the cream de la cream of the country fights for medals and chakras. Our education system seems to be a big field where just standing in the field with a plough on the shoulders can easily be passed off as being a farmer toiling hard. Beads of sweat can either come from exertion or acuteness of sun blazing over the head. Who can distinguish the origin of perspiration?
When Dean sir had told me that he will be off to Delhi tomorrow for presenting his paper what struck to me was an incident one of my friend working in Delhi, who once had set a challenge to have at least 10 ‘published papers’ against his name on his resume thanks to the miracle of Internet, had ironically regaled me with. When one of the leading engineering colleges of Delhi hosted a national level technical paper presentation event the earnestness of chief guest did not go down well with college authorities. When the poor chief guest took his job too seriously and deemed it his job to trickle down some of the important lessons he had learned over the years not only did college authority make their displeasure known but also compelled all the paper presenters to finish what they had to say in a fixed absurdly limited amount of time. All those who had come to have one more thappa on their resumes must have rejoiced over this state of the things. But what about those few who had burnt the midnight oil to have their papers prepared and then presented? It would have been too foolhardy a thing to tell this all to that devotee of his subject. I hope at his age with his experience and intellect he gets a pulpit the elevation of which is not deceptive.
Lost in my thoughts I had come out of the main building and was on my way to faculty house.
A few weeks after, one day when I was sitting in my cabin, Sukh Ram, the peon walked in with a pack of sweets in his hands.
I was apprehensive.
I was told Khatri sir was celebrating first birthday of his son
I took respite.
While my tongue relished the taste of a dulcified piece of burfee my eyes fell on a student standing outside.
Mr Khatri’s book was staring at me.