Saturday, August 20, 2005

Comfortably Numb

I slowly rotate the small circular disk in my hand. It looks deceivingly harmless. Its vendor looks at me hopefully. I have no idea what I’m doing in the black market of the city. My friends and I are out in the city for a treat. But somehow, I don’t want to stay with the crowd. I’ve strayed out alone.

“How much?” I ask.

“A Hundred and fifty.” The vendor says. I give him a look. The market is buzzing with activity. The galaxy of electric bulbs and tubes stretches on to infinity.

“That’s too much!” I say, knowing that these black market vendors always cite prices at least three times the actual.

“No, no!” he says, “I’ve sold it for more. I’m giving a special discount only for you.”

“A hundred.” I say. He shakes his head. I turn to leave. I know he will call me back. He does.

“Okay! Come back. You can have it for hundred.” He says.

“Does it work?” I want to confirm once more. As if he wouldn’t lie.

“Yes!” he says confidently and gives me a lopsided grin.

I throw him a bill, still feeling that I could have bargained for eighty and walk away with the device. It is a weird little thing - one of those that have been banned even before they ever hit the shelves. What it does is simple. You attach the electrodes to your forehead and switch it on. Then you just think about it and before you know it, you are gone. Gone forever. No hassles, no pain. None of the usual difficulties in ending your life. Just sit back, relax and think about it and you’re no more.

Why had I bought it? I don’t know exactly. Perhaps the vendor was a good salesman.

My friends beckon to me from the other side of the street. They are ready to go to the restaurant. I join them in their happy banter that is so characteristic of young people. But my mind is elsewhere. Every now and then my hand goes to my pocket. I feel the smooth surface of that small device in my hand. It is cold, metallic and hard to touch. I feel a strange detachment from the rest of my group. I am in there – laughing, smiling, and nodding – but my mind is elsewhere. It is as if I had separated from my body and was watching from the corner of the room.

We go back late that night. Nobody notices my strange behavior among the festivities. Their liveliness is annoying. Why can’t they keep silent for some time? Why not let me alone. Once we are back at the hostel I make straight for my room. Saumya tries to stop me. He wants me to stay. But I make some stupid excuse and leave.

When I get to my room I switch off the lights and lay down on my bed. I put my hand onto my pocked and take out the device. I switch it on. The red LED on it glows in the dark. Does it really work? I clasp it in my hand feeling the cold surface get warmer in my palm.

Anxious, I get up. I lock my room and walk out – out of my room, out of the hostel. I want to get away – from people, those laughing faces, those stupid jokes, those mundane concerns of daily life. I want to get away from light. I walk towards the loneliest areas of the campus.

For some time I just keep walking – thinking nothing. Then suddenly I realize. I am fiddling with it! I take it out. It looks ghastly in the dim yellow light of the street lamp. I hesitate. What am I thinking? Am I thinking of actually using it?!

Why? Why, because it would be so easy. This small thing was the solution to all of life’s problems. If I use it now, I would not have to wake up to classes on Monday. Hell, I would not even have to wake up. I can sleep forever. Eternally. It would ease all pain. No more classes, homework, projects, reports, jobs, interviews, internships – none of it ever again. No more bother about people and relationships. Nothing to care about. No responsibilities. Peace.

Night sounds fill the space around me. The surroundings are bathed in the diffuse yellow-orange glow of the sodium vapour lamp overhead. I watch the darkness of my shadow grow longer as I walk away from it.

Why not – I question myself. What would become of my family after me? What would my mother do? What about my brother? I have some responsibilities towards them. Can I bear to see them in grief?

But I wouldn’t have to see them in grief once I’m gone, isn’t it? And how long does grief last? A year? Perhaps two? Time heals everything. Life went on after my father died. Life will go on even if I fade away from the face of this earth. This world can do without me. Responsibilities bind you only till you are alive. The dead don’t answer to anyone.

I turn the corner and see the hostel in the distance. I suddenly become aware of my surroundings. The device is still clutched in my hand. I shakily put it away. How can I think this way?

I can’t run away from life like this. This is escapism. Running away from problems does not solve them. I take a deep breath. Would these things really matter once I’m gone?

What about the experiences life has to offer? What about the pleasures of living - the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the smells – the infinite range of experience that one calls life? Would I not miss them all? And the sufferings, I remind myself. The pains and miseries – I’d miss them all too.

It’s only desire – I tell myself. And the dead have no desire. Desire is the root of all pain, all suffering. Once you are gone there is no more desire, no more pain, no more suffering. No sights or sounds will call out to you then. You’ll be at peace finally.

I see three couples coming towards me on the street. I smile ruefully at my loneliness. I feel a small ache in my heart. The ache of a long lost love. The ache of the lack of companionship. That would be gone too, wouldn’t it?

I pass two of them in trance. My mind has passed into a state of numbness. I can’t think anymore. I can only feel. I can only experience.

My trance is broken by the last couple. I realize that I know them both. The boy exclaims loudly upon seeing me. He engages me in talk about the mundane worldly activities. These things are very important to him. Again a part of me detaches itself and observes. It wonders. It compares the things that the boy is talking about to the grand machinery of the world. It smiles at the difference of scale. Still, these things are so important to this boy. Outwardly I nod and smile, inwardly I’m hardly listening. I completely ignore the girl. I don’t know why.

I take their leave and walk on. The reverie has fallen away and is replaced by more worldly concerns. I find that I’m sweating even though the weather is cool. I’m afraid. Afraid that they might guess what I was thinking. Afraid that they might think I’m mad. Afraid that they might stop me.

Why not? I tell myself again. All that fear will be gone too. Nothing will be left.

A strange lightness fills my heart. I realize that I’m hungry. Perhaps the lack of glucose is making me so depressed. I proceed to the canteen, contemplating what I’d eat.

I order the most sumptuous meal available. I even have an ice cream and a chocolate for dessert. I return to my room. I put on some music. I switch off the lights and lay down on my bed. I take out the device and attach it to my temple. I close my eyes and switch it on.

My family floats into my vision – my mother and brother. I want to talk to them one last time, just like I do twice a week. My thoughts move to other people. I want to say something to each one of them. Relatives, friends – I have something to say to everyone. My thoughts then move to things – things that I want to do. It is an infinite world. Slowly everything fades away and pure melancholy fills my heart.

The Pink Floyd are singing – I . . . . have become . . . . comfortably numb. . . .


August 21, 2005

2:14 AM

Friday, August 12, 2005

Standard of writing on Meander

I wonder what is going to happen to the standard of writing on Meander. None of the bachhas know how to write good - forget good - even decent English. All of their articles are riddled with dots and dashes, trailing sentences, incorrect expressions and totally unimaginative language. And Atul still calls them "excellent". I really wonder!

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Living and Living Alone

I’ve always been a loner. When I was in school and lived at home (I feel that I’ve lost my home now. When I go home now, I feel like an outsider. I hope it’s only temporary.) I was happiest when I was in my balcony – alone with just me and my thoughts. I loved those private moments. Moments when I could think, I could imagine, I could day dream. Think thoughts that I dare not share with anyone.

Hostel took away that privacy. Over here, I had to live with a room mate, who was alien at first then became an acquaintance and then almost rose to the importance of my spouse. I’m not gay mind you but that is how close you actually get to your room mate. But he’s not the best of my pals and he knows it too. I cannot share everything nor anything with him. And I miss my privacy.

I was looking forward to coming to the new hall where I would finally get a single room and my privacy back. Once I again I would be able to spend those endless hours alone. But that was not to be. Till now there has hardly been a moment when I’ve been alone in my room.

Some people have a knack for never realizing the exact time that they start becoming unwelcome. I have a couple of these friends. I would not name the first one but he has the annoying habit of coming to my room and not leaving until he’s specifically told to. To be honest, I don’t dislike him. In fact, I quite like him at times. We have a variety of matching interests and I like talking to him on occasions. But I don’t like his perpetual presence in my room. He behaves like my trunk which is always there the corner. Or like the alarm clock, ticking away on my shelf. He’s constantly present in the periphery of my vision. After some time I ignore him completely, in the vague hope that he’ll leave. But he doesn’t. Poor me.

The second person is Atul. And before he becomes angry let me point out that no, he’s neither the trunk nor the alarm clock. He seldom comes to my room. His vice is persistence. A typical conversation is like this :

Atul: Would you like to come for a walk?

Vinod: Um . . . no, I don’t feel like it right now. (What I’m actually thinking is – his walks don’t usually end till 3:00 am and if I go with him now, there is no way that I can attend the lecture early next morning)

Atul: “Chalo na, please.”

After this, no matter how many times I say no, this guy would not leave my room until I go with him. He’s actually sat for an hour in my room before I had to give in to his request. And he does this with all his requests. He really gets on to my nerves after some time. After all there is a time and place when and where I prefer to do things. Why should I do things at his convenience? But like I said – he’s persistent.

Let me now make the confession that this blog was actually intended for – I had a quarrel with Atul over this. Once day I really lost my temper over his behavior and said nasty things. Atul, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. I admire and appreciate you a lot as a person. But please try leaving me alone sometimes.

Sometimes I think I’m being mean with these people. After all, they stay with me because they like me. They want my company. I’m grateful to them for that. Very few people actually like me and I cherish all those who do. Really, I’m not being sarcastic. I’m immensely grateful to all the friends that I’ve got over here.

Perhaps it’s good that I get no loneliness over here. When I get out into the big bad world, I’d be lonely like hell. All the loneliness that I could want would be there. I should be thankful for these years. But then again that was exactly what they said when I left school – you’ll have to face the world alone now. It turned out that it wasn’t that bad. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad when I get out of this place too.

All things appear to be weird until they happen – growing up, going to college, having a job, having family all appear to be difficult until they happen. But when they do happen they seem like the most natural course of life. When the time comes, nothing remains extraordinary. Everything seems normal.

So, I’m still searching, for my bit of loneliness.

JEE: Does it Need Revision?

Lately, there is news floating around in campus that JEE is going to be revamped. What is being said is – that a statistical study was done over the last seven years’ data and it was found that there is a strong correlation between the board exam results of students and their CPI in IIT and no correlation between AIR and CPI. In this light, why not revise JEE and let is take account of the board exam results too. Now I don’t know the details of this study but would still atempt to make some analyses.

  1. The students entering IITs through JEE are not equitably distributed into branches. While taking admission there are always something called good branches – like CSE and EE these days – and bad branches like Civil or pure sciences these days. High rankers go into “good” branches and the low rankers into the “bad” ones. However, once into their departments the students are graded relative to their peers in their own departments. This is true at least in last two years of a B. Tech. program when most of the courses done are departmental. Relative grading implies that most students would get a CPI of 6.5 to 7.5 because C is the grade you get if you are average. So the average guy in CSE gets the same CPI as the average guy in Civil. However, there is a huge difference in their AIRs. Thus the correlation is spoilt.
  2. The study has been done in the past seven years. This is the time when the coaching culture and the IIT hype has reached its high in India. In such a scenario the high AIR of a student implies that he’s worked harder than he deserves to get into IIT. The higher the rank, the more burnt out and unmotivated the student is. He’s already worked so much that he does not want to work anymore. Result – low CPI of a high ranking individual.

Apart from this, I also find a similarity between the school education pattern and the IIT education and JEE stands entirely different.

  1. School students are used to a pattern of quarterly, half-yearly and annual examination. So although, Board Exam is stand alone, it does not feel like one. IITs also have the pattern of quizzes, mid-sems and end sems. JEE on the other hand is a one day match (rather a two day match if you count screening as well).
  2. Board Exams are not competitive exams, neither are the sem exams at the IITs. JEE is. During JEE there is a strong feeling of “defeating others”.
  3. Board Exams have some practical component. IITs have practical component. JEE does not.
  4. There is lot of transparency in Board Exams. Teachers and students both know what will be asked in the exam and what is expected. The exam is neither mysterious nor secretive. IIT sem exams are similar in nature. Most of the time the professor makes sure that the students know what is expected and required of them. JEE on the other hand is the most mysterious and non-transparent exam that I’ve seen. No “model” question and answers are prepared by the IIT. The pattern keeps varying each year. It is never known to the students what they are supposed to know or what is expected of them. There is a lot of secrecy surrounding JEE.
  5. There a no “droppers” in the Board Exam. Most people give the exam only once. Similarly the most students do a course only once in the IITs. They don’t repeat it over and over again. JEE however, has a large number of “droppers” appearing – people who have made multiple attempts at the Exam. Over the years they might have become proficient at cracking the exam rather than having developed an understanding of the subject.

In view of the above points I’d say that making JEE more transparent would be a good reform. Tell the students what they are expected to know, what they are being tested for and what they are supposed to write in the exam.

Please do not bar droppers from appearing for the exam which I think would be grossly unfair!

Also I don’t think that taking Board Exams into account is a good idea for JEE for the following reasons.

  1. There is a lot of variation in the grading. CBSE itself admits the fact. The Board Exam score does not depict the actual ability of the student. (That can be said about JEE or any other exam too.)
  2. The Board Exam curriculum is not in line with the abilities that are required in IITs. The IIT system requires extensive problem solving abilities but the Board Exam does not prepare the student for it.

Again, I don’t know the details of the statistics so many of my views can be stupid but I sincerely hope they help. I don’t like the coaching culture at all and its in common interest that something is done about it.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Purpose of the IITs and the Way to Live

The title will sound strange. Please be patient and by the end of this blog, I hope, you will understand it.

The new semester has recently started and I’m once again doing five new courses and have five new teachers. All the profs are okay, a couple are good. But one fellow is strange. Let me not name him. He’s taking the Design of Steel Structures course. Now this fellow seems to be least interested in design or steel or structures or the course itself for that matter. There have been four lectures till now and he’s talked to everything but these three words and any combination of them.

His favourite topic of conversation appears to be the flaw in the IIT system. I don’t think it’s his fault at all. That actually happens to be the favourite topic of conversation for everyone around here. People related to the IIT have this strange notion that nothing except the IIT is important and therefore discussion related to the IIT fills up most of their time, free or otherwise.

Let me get to the point fast. In this professor’s view, the IIT philosophy of imparting a holistic education is flawed. We are supposed to be an engineering institute and there is no point in teaching so many courses from humanities or pure sciences. The remark affected me emotionally which in itself if some news because it is very difficult to move me. At least that is the impression I have of myself. Once I was watching Charlie Chaplins Gold Rush with Jimmy John, a good friend of mine. After the movie he asked my opinion about it. I said it was a good film, quite funny. But, he said, you were hardly laughing!

Anyhow, the remarks affected me because I myself belong to that category of students who are more than busy getting a holistic education and screwing up their academics, or rather the engineering part of it.

The question is – which way is correct? Should the IITs target to develop your overall personalities or should they just concentrate on making world class engineers. For the starters, India has hardly ever produced world class engineers. Why waste your time then?

Dr. Suchitra Mathur, who I’ve got to know quite well over the last couple of years and who has been a guru to me during this time, emphasizes that the IITs were not set up to produce engineers but leaders. And leaders need versatile personalities. Some people, unfortunately, do not agree with her.

The question is also larger. As a student it faces you at every moment of your life. Do you make a bee-line to your goal or do you meander towards it? I’ve always been the meandering sorts, even during JEE time, and I don’t think I can ever be anything else. I believe it has paid off well for me. Being very good at some particular things take you a long way ahead in your life – I’ve always envied JEE rank one. But being average at many things has its own advantages. I find myself to be comfortable in more situations than most people. I can carry out an intelligent conversation on more topics than others. I enjoy more facets of life than others.

Life after all is not a one way track. It’s more like a jungle. You have to wade your way through, never knowing what you will encounter at the next step. What you thought you’d do ten years hence you might never actually do in your entire life. Why concentrate on one thing then and miss out on all others?

Still, I withdraw any harsh words against the above mentioned professor for it is my belief that every individual is correct.