Reminiscing about “growing up” in Pilani… … and paying tribute to my classmates

July 20, 2017

Pilani '71B

“When I get older losing my hair, many years from now …Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four”

So goes the refrain from a popular Beatles song from the time I was in my second year at BITS. Sixty-four and retirement seemed such a distant thought to contemplate then and so the song was just that, a cute little ditty.

Now that I have covered the ground towards this magical milestone and then some, retirement is not as idyllic as it was cracked up to be. Doing the garden and digging the weeds is not an option in urban India, nor are there prospects of grandchildren on my knees any time soon, and so I must turn to reminiscing to occupy my days. Fortunately, there are some privileges that come with age. Having experienced my share of joys and sorrows for the better part of my life, I don’t just reminisce but reminisce selectively. While for the most part my recollections of my Pilani days are cheerful and happy in a Pollyanna kind of way, there are moments when I look back at my five years at BITS to understand how they contributed to my personal growth.

My happiest recollections take me back to some of the memorable characters from my time on campus. These blokes were not only colorful in their unique ways but they contributed significantly to make me what I am. Looking back, I realize that what I learnt for the most part in the classrooms at BITS was to bank bits and pieces of information and make deposits of knowledge into a repository, not knowing entirely what I will do with them. But what really contributed to my personal growth were the critical life skills that I learnt outside the classroom from some of these folks. These guys were my paidagogus, the ancient Greek notion of a teacher who turned boys into men (the sexism in unfortunate but a reality in ancient Greece and 60s Pilani). I could fill an entire notebook with anecdotes about them but I will stick to just a handful for this narrative. Curiously, some of the learning on my part happened years after I left BITS.

Kumar was a very disciplined student. He had to be, since he juggled the rigors of academics and sports activities quite successfully. He had spent the better part of his school days as a boarder and so discipline came naturally to him. Back in ’66 when we were freshers, BITS fielded a very strong hockey team which did creditably in inter-varsity tournaments. And so, it was a mix of surprise and joy for us when Kumar started for the team at Center-Half just a couple of months into our first semester at BITS, alongside such stars as the two Gills, Chaturvedi, Hazarika etc.

He and I lived as wingies in Pilani. He tried to instill some discipline into my recalcitrant ways and nearly succeeded but even he could not get me to wake up for the early morning classes. I did, however, learn an important lesson from him for life — the notion of deferred gratification. The point that foregoing an extra hour of blissful sleep was necessary for my long-term well-being was not lost on me.

Deepak, a gifted writer, made it to the editorial board of the campus rag, the BITS BEAT, perhaps as early as our first year in BITS. He was the quintessential online communicator long before such a thing existed. We used to have some of our classes (we called them periods, an awkward term at best!) in our 4th and 5th years in room #52 in M-Block. Deepak, in his then avatar of Domé, crafted a broadsheet known as “52PERIODical” which was essentially a large newsprint-like sheet of paper where he scribed his commentaries live. He then circulated it amongst the class members, the few that chose to attend, for their written comments. All this was done unmindful of Prof. MMM as he went about describing flip-flops in his impeccable English. I had preserved one of these but it fell victim to my itinerant lifestyle of the early 80s. This was probably an early precursor to today’s blog!

From Deepak, I learnt the importance of communication that was both precise and elegant. Although I couldn’t dream of reaching his lofty standards, I was able to do well enough in this area in my professional life among native English speakers. Later in life, when I had overcome my reticence, I was able to start expressing myself with more confidence in the written form.

Jayesh and I had something in common. He was an asthmatic, so am I. The disease, to some extent, defined my childhood and adolescent years, so much so that some childhood friends still remember me as the kid who was never seen without a handkerchief. Consequently, I curbed my outdoor activities, although I was very fond of sports. Jayesh on the other hand didn’t let his asthma get in the way of developing his badminton skills. He was already an exceptional player when he entered BITS and breezed into the college team. Just seeing him on the court, effortlessly sending opponents packing, was an inspiration for me.

I learnt to listen to my body very closely and look for triggers that caused an attack of asthma. Gradually, I could lose the disease as a visible appendage. I picked up cricket again, playing the sport well into my late 40s in the unlikeliest of venues, along the Rocky Mountain front range of Colorado! I met Jayesh for the last time in Denver when he came visiting from India back in 2005. Asthma sadly got the better of him.

There were many others in my class, too many to name here, from whom I learnt not to sweat the small stuff (like grades for example!) but instead to experience the “interval of freedom” that college afforded, a carefree time to throw myself with reckless abandon at fellow students and learn from them.

And finally, there was Srikant who distinguished himself academically but did so unobtrusively. If you didn’t get a peek into his grade cards, you wouldn’t know he pulled straight As.  In fact, in our first ever semester at BITS, he missed classes every other Monday. He presumably had important business to take care of in Delhi (which consisted of getting a haircut. Yes, indeed, he got a regulation haircut every other week from a barber at the Indian Air Force camp in Dhaula Kuan). Even when he did make it to a class, he sat in the bleachers and snoozed and seldom troubled the professors. In fact, he was once woken up in class by Diro Laksminarayanan who just happened to be passing by!

He and I bonded over music. We would listen to programs from various radio stations in India and abroad – BBC, VOA, Radio Luxemburg and even Radio Pakistan. At a time when overseas travel was rare, these programs served as a surrogate for physical travel. He continued to nurture this passion for travel in later years with frequent trips to exotic locations.

As I said, S’kant excelled in academics. I excelled in all round mediocrity. Inexplicably, he came to me frequently to discuss concepts he didn’t quite grasp in class. He would exhort me to try and “figure out” stuff with him, which was just his way of forcing me to analyze and evaluate concepts rather than merely remember facts. Much later in life I realized that I had unwittingly encountered a higher form of learning, albeit purely in the cognitive domain, which was encapsulated in a pedagogic framework known as “Bloom’s Taxonomy”.

S’Kant and I remained very close friends. Having him around in Bangalore was one of the reasons I felt I could handle a relocation to the city after being away from India for close to 27 years. When I met him for the last time, cancer had ravaged his body and he didn’t entertain visitors but he was game for one last good ole-fashioned BITS-style lachha session and in the words of his wife and daughter, “it was magical”. Literally the last words I heard him say were “it was a special place”. Indeed, it was, in space and time.

It was also perhaps the ultimate teachable moment. He bore the pain the disease inflicted on him with a saintly demeanor. Just watching him deal with it made me a better person. Those last few days of his life were also, for me, a learning of a very profound kind; another reminder that life is transitory, something beautifully expressed in a song back from our final year at BITS:

“all things must pass, none of life’s strings can last

  so I must be on my way, to face another day

  darkness only stays at night time

  in the morning it will fade away

  daylight is good at arriving at the right time

  it is not always going to be this grey

  all things must pass, all things must pass away”