The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Feb 24, 2008

Informal Discussions

After a brief but stirring bloodbath among the freshmen who competed for the two places available, Vivek and Eki joined the galactic ranks of the managing committee of the Informal Discussion Group, that meeting-place of students and luminaries where all questions were welcome and informality reigned. The IDG was one of the more active organisations in College, arranging visits by various great men and women to address (and engage in conversation) the students. Compared to the Wodehouse Society that collected fifteen rupees a term and did nothing, the IDG was a veritable powerhouse of activity.

The modus operandi was simple: the IDG wrote to a VIP, the VIP would rear back in astonishment at the effrontery, the VIP would ask within his sphere about this IDG, the coterie (Stephanians, for the most part) would respond with flattering reassurances, and the VIP would accept the invitation. The IDG would put up a notice on the college bulletin-board announcing the meeting with the VIP and interested students would find reasons to hang on in campus till late in the evening. On the day, one of the managing committee would totter over to the VIP's house in a rickety autorickshaw (the funds were insufficient for limousines) and bring the VIP to college with a suitably regal escort (of one). The VIP would be invited for dinner at the High Table with the professors and the IDG member, who at the moment would look a bit out of his depth. Shortly thereafter, we'd all repair to the Staff Room, where the VIP, flanked by an IDG moderator and (if required) a Black Cat commando, would talk a bit, and then field questions from the audience. It was all very civilised, informal and off-the-record, so invariably we'd get a tidbit of news served up to us that had, somehow, eluded the newspapers. We'd then congratulate ourselves and stick our chests out proudly - how many other colleges had such easy access to the VIP firmament?

Stephanians have long had a powerful hold on the public in India. Among successful politicos, bureaucrats, sportsmen, aesthetes, artistes, soldiers, and executives, one could always find alumni from College. And these alumni formed a mutual admiration society of no mean power: the Old Boys (and, later, Girls) wielded undoubted influence and were always ready to entertain requests for support or influence from students of their alma mater.

This meant, for instance, that when Rusi Mody was invited and he wondered whether to accept, there was a Stephanian at hand to sing praises of the IDG, and so he turned up, expecting to face intelligent discussion with the upper-class young of the land.

During my time in College (especially the first year when I was a resident student, which eased the attendance of IDG considerably), we had several interesting and impassioned meetings with the powers-that-be. Captain Rakesh Sharma, the First Indian In Space, was a particularly engaging man. He spoke of his training with the Soviets at Baikonur and not knowing almost till the last minute whether he or his fellow desi colleague (Ravish Malhotra, whose name, no doubt, nobody remembers anymore) would be selected to participate in the mission. Once in space, he kept fit with a bunch of specially designed yogic exercises, which he said performed no worse than the rigorous fitness regimen of the Russians.

The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, phoned him up as his craft flew over India. How does the country look from up there? she asked. He burst into song: Saare jahaan se accha. There was a brief silence when he stopped, he told us, grinning sheepishly. Oh my God, he had thought. Was that a bit over-the-top?

Then the P.M. laughed and congratulated him on his achievement. He wasn't sure if she meant his singing or his spaceflight, I guess.

He had much to say about the Russian space programme. Technically, it was not as advanced as that of the Americans, but the rockets were work-horses, very reliable and of simple design, more powerful and cheaper than the NASA vehicles. Their fitness and training programmes were top-notch, and the evidence was there for the world to see: men who survived months aboard the Soviet space-station Salyut.

Russi Mody, the chairman of TISCO, was known to be a bon viveur and, when in a good mood, very jolly company as well. At the time, he was master of the steel domain and famous for consuming seven eggs daily for breakfast. That was how he maintained his vim and vigour, he said. When you have the one, the other follows, he added, winking at us.

At the time, the memoirs of Lee Iacocca and Akio Morita were doing the rounds of campus. These successful managers had taken their companies to great heights of achievement. I asked Mr Mody why he thought their methods worked, and why he hadn't applied them to TISCO. What methods are those? he snapped at me. I tried to explain that I wanted to know why we had no world-beating companies, but it all came out a bit incoherently. He was not happy at all. TISCO hadn't then become the top-notch and efficient manufacturer that it is today. While there were no labour disputes, there were tensions in the upper management. Clearly he hadn't been pleased to be reminded of the power struggles. But he soon cheered up enough to tell us a joke.

No women here? he said, looking around the room. Very well, then. What happens when a Parsi with an erection runs into a wall?

We don't know, we said, dutifully. What happens when a Parsi with an erection runs into a wall?

He breaks his nose, said Mr Mody, grinning hugely.

Such a man, we marvelled, glowing in self-satisfaction and warmed by his benevolence.

We had a top airman from the Indian Air Force visit us. I forget his name, but he was an articulate and polished individual, tall and elegant. At the time, the Indians had been tacitly supporting the Tamil separatists in northern Sri Lanka; when the Sinhalese army fought a bloody battle in Jaffna to encircle the extremists, the IAF had mounted an airdrop of tons of supplies to relieve the besieged Tamils. The operation was conducted in broad daylight and in full view of Sri Lankan radar, and was widely recognised as a show of force by the Indians to put the Sri Lankans, who had been courting Pakistan and Israel for support, in their place. The airman admitted as much to us once he realised that there were no journalists in our midst. The Indians had to show them who was boss, said the airman. The Indian Ocean is India's sphere of influence, and we couldn't have the Chinese or the Pakistanis muscling in.

(Of course, in the past twenty years, the power dynamic has changed somewhat. The Chinese have observation posts and the capability for naval stations in Burma and Pakistan. The US Navy at Diego Garcia is still the honcho of the seas. But the Indian Navy has acquired blue-water capability and helps police the shipping lines against pirates and people smugglers. It's all multipolar now.)

As far as I can remember, very few women came to the IDG. For one thing, there would be no women in the audience (the boarders in College were all men). Secondly, the College authorities had a particularly primitive and rude attitude towards female visitors. Women were banned from the halls of residence. A student whose mother had come to settle him in had been roundly abused by the Dean. She may be your mother, he had yelled, But she is not everybody else's mother. There was much of a similar outlook towards the women students, too. When a girl from college was molested by a thug on a University Special (buses that took students from the University campus to the various localities in Delhi), the Principal, as lecherous an old man as any, commented, These girls wear dresses that only get to mid-thigh, and they expect not to be touched? This sort of talk and behaviour was public knowledge, and anyway, the male hostels in the University were known to be hot-beds of testosterone and other suppressed hormones. So girls didn't stay late on campus.

We had Maneka Gandhi visit us, though. She had been promoting animal welfare for some time and was happy to talk about her drive against the cruelty meted out to animals in the name of scientific experimentation. However, she had also recently joined the Janata Dal party, in opposition to her erstwhile family concern of the Congress party, and this motivated some politically biased students to question her rather rudely. She wasn't fazed and answered with poise and grace.

In keeping with the times, V.P. Singh, considered Mr Clean in Rajiv Gandhi's government, had also left the Congress. He had possibly found some documentation incriminating the Prime Minister in a defence procurement deal with Sweden, and before he could go public on his information, he had been sacked from the Cabinet. He was invited to the IDG and he came in his car. While he was dining with the professors at the high table, several students' unionists who supported the Prime Minister's party came by and, shouting various slogans, torched his car.

There was much commotion, and we all rushed out to help. The fire was extinguished with a lot of sand, but the car was wrecked. The evening was ruined, too, and V.P. Singh went away without speaking to us.

Usually, the attendance at one of the IDG meetings was small enough that everyone could be accommodated in the Staff Room, with the overflow perching on the windows. But when Kapil Dev was invited, the organisers knew that half the city would turn up to see him. The meeting was, therefore, arranged to be held in the College's great hall.

To throw people off the scent, the notice on the bulletin board announced a discussion with K.D. Nikhanj. The announcement was made on the day of the meeting, unlike the usual notice of a few days. Still, the news spread like rats, and the auditorium was packed. Students from other colleges turned up in droves. It was like having a political party convention.

My pal Vivek went to escort Kapil Dev. Mr Dev was happy to drive to the college in his brand new imported car. He was quite fascinated with the gadgets in his vehicle. As they drove on the Ring Road, Vivek was surprised to see the car windows go up and down. Very clever, no? said Mr Dev, pressing buttons. I love these powered windows. He was like a child with a new toy.

I think even Kapil was astonished to see the turnout in his honour. But he was as friendly as ever and cheerful in his talk. He spoke in a strange accent, desi-mixed-with-Hungarian, which he attributed to his sponsorship of (and careful perusal of material from) the Rapidex English Speaking Course. It's good stuff he said to us. Don't you think so? Is there a problem with my speech?

We all adoringly assured him that there was nothing wrong with his English.

There had recently been a couple of old Stephanians in the Indian cricket team. Both of them had been removed for underperformance. We asked Kapil about them. He shrugged and said, What's the point of making triple-centuries in Ranji trophy matches if you fold in the first over against international teams? People stamped on the floorboards and cheered.

Other luminaries visited us at various times. M.J. Akbar, Sam Maneckshaw, even the Dalai Lama. The Bedi brothers, wild-life documentary film-makers showed a lovely film they'd made of the tiger.

By the time I was in the final year of college, though, my attendance at the IDG had dwindled to nothing. And not many more recollections remain. Good times, though.


Sunil said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one feanor....i'm a bit of a sucker for these nostalgic posts.

Fëanor said...

Glad you liked it. I'm afraid my nostalgia is not quite what it used to be, heheh. But wait: are you a Stephanian, too?

Guru said...

You must have some memory man. Being part of spectator myse I cant recall all these details. I do remember Kapil Dev being asked as to why they had no kids and in reply he promised to start that very night!

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