A blatantly inconsiderate sound pierced through my subconscious mind that, until the mishap happened, was running the slides of a fairly impossible yet infinitely desirable incident. The slides, playing somewhere on a little screen in the intricate alleys of my brain, were switched off in a flash and a warm darkness poured in. The sinful sound bleated incessantly even as the frail images of sheer bliss broke apart behind my sleep-sealed eyes, like a beautiful glass painting dropping on the floor.
I groaned in anger. Eyes still closed, I patted the world around me in a circle. My fingers were frantically scanning the scattered area trying to locate the source of the sound. A mobile phone (which dropped on impact), a few case mats left open, a couple of closed books and my all-weather notebook later, the probing fingers finally rested on the small digital alarm clock that had gone off, showing little concern for the little joy the night chose to bless me with. Couple of random hits later the sound stopped. I buried my face back into the bed, pulling the pillow over my head, in a desperate bid to go back to the state of ecstasy I was in only a few unfortunately unidirectional moments ago.
Now sandwiched by the warmth, I began to slowly slip back into the calm wrapping of sleep…
Peep…peep! Peep…peep! Peep…..peep!
Unlike last time, this sound was deafeningly shrill. It hit my ears so hard that the world around me crumbled like a potato wafer under truck tyre. I let out an inaudible cry in semi-conscious frustration and wrapped my hands around the pillow, pressing them harder over my head. I rolled on the bed, changed sides, but the sound still churned my insides. This time it seemed to come from the floor below me; a piercing monophony that seemed to drill a hole right through the bed to force-enter my sleep-deprived brain. I extended my arms and probed again, trying to reach the floor below my bed. But my fingers only moved through the air, way above the floor level, collecting wads of mockery that the sound below threw at me. Moments later, suddenly, the beep stopped, as if out of absolute pity for its hapless victim. The mobile on the floor fell silent, as it was pre-programmed to. It was my back-up alarm (you can’t afford to have just a single alarm, you need an army of alarms) that still worked amazingly, even as the mobile regularly got dropped to the floor at an average rate of 0.99 drops per night, slipping from the inclined mumbo-jumbo of brown-covered-spiral-bound torture-texts, bouncing off the floor as a winner every time, infinite scratches on its now-defaced body not withstanding.
By this time, my comatose head was coming back to normalcy and I had started rolling back into the unromantic mundane reality; the unenviable reality of waking up inside the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) to another twenty non-stop hours of classes, meal-skips, quizzes, assignments and semi-night-outs. And this day couldn’t have been worse.
I looked at the clock. 8:55 AM. Hell, No! My heart jumped like a wounded dog and all traces of sleep vaporized in a flash. Less than 300 seconds away from the first lecture! Coming late is not a choice that you can ever make for this class. People either came five minutes before time or didn’t come at all. No body dared come late. Ever. Let alone coming, even dreaming about being late is enough to wet one’s pants at night.
I jerked my length out of the bed while the demure morning glow, softened by the translucent window panes, bathed the grim chaos of fallen notes and books, a 24X7-running restless computer, a roof-kissing stack of management books, a coffee mug with a circle of sticky dried coffee on the bottom, a phone fighting for space on the side-table, few pens looking for their caps or playing cap swapping, chairs almost invisible under the pile of stale clothes and a towel, and twisted cables of the computer gathering dust on their shiny curvaceous lithe black bodies hanging down from the black-top table of my new-campus room.
Time wasn’t just running out. It was zooming past like an F-16 fighter plane, its after-thunders drumming my heart. I stumbled on my own slippers as I fumbled for the toothbrush and paste. After ten seconds of an excruciating search operation, I located and pulled out my towel, 3% visible in the pile of clothes. Before I realized, I was running towards the bathroom adorned with all the morning-routine paraphernalia, including an unlikely accompaniment – my wristwatch — to help me fight the losing-but-yet-not-all-lost battle against the 9:00 am deadline. The next 180 seconds were action-packed – like the climax of a bizarre C-grade Bollywood movie in fast-forward. 70 seconds to 9:00 and I was already inside my cargo pants; pants that afforded me the least putting on time, so crucial for survival when you wake up frighteningly late on a fateful morning with Prof. RC taking the first lecture.
Slamming the door behind me unlocked, I took five Olympian long jumps to the flight of stairs leading out of the dorm (IIMA short for dormitory). As I took three steps down, my heart choked. It dawned on me that I had left the SFI case mat in the room. The case mat, a brown spiral-bound book of cases meant for classroom discussion, was an absolute survival kit that rendered an array of services in the classroom, including providing a life-saving opportunity to look busy (keep looking at it…just keep looking at it as if the texts are all that is left in your life!) to avoid the professor’s attention. The selected pages of the case mat had been sleepily marked last night with a highlighter pen in a way that could inspire a thousand guessing games. Guess, which line is highlighted; the one above or the one below? Guess, what’s more…the lines that are highlighted or ones that are not? Well, the somnamography (sorry, I had to invent this word) not withstanding, these highlights could save you some terrible embarrassment in the class, provided you have prayed really hard to get a luxurious 20-30 seconds before a question passes to you. If you didn’t pray hard enough or were thinking of campus girls while praying and are facing a brand new question, then the case mat along with the fluorescent yellow highlights is pretty much close to useless.
Back to the hammering head and the third-from-top stair. Panting, I rushed back, almost tripping near the door, an action that could also have been mistaken for Hritik Roshan style dancing. I flung the door open and frantically rummaged through the pile of case mats lying on the bed and the floor. SFI was missing! I felt the nerves in my brain tighten. I was losing my ability to think and act. Heart pounding, I bent down and looked under the bed. Oh Good Lord! There it was, finally. Neatly tucked in the crack between my bed and the wall. The spiral binding with diameter greater than the thickness of the mat had kept it from falling down to the floor. For exactly 4.5 seconds, the suspended SFI case mat, that was neither on the bed nor on the floor, a la Narsimha-Prahlada-Hiranyakashipu, had stopped the blood flow in my mostly visible veins.
As I came out running from my dorm and climbed up the stairs to the classroom building, I saw a couple of my classmates scrambling their way towards the class, a half-consumed banana or an empty coffee cup in hand, sandwich partly stuffed into the mouth, partly sticking out. I ran, trailing fifteen steps behind them as the countdown began. 20 seconds, 19, 18, 17 …My hands were now working me up harder than my feet. I was flying on the last set of stairs, pulling my weight by grabbing the railing and jerking my body up, skipping a couple of stairs below.
9:00:02. Two seconds past the deadline. I squeezed the last puff of breath out of my lungs and kangaroo-jumped into the classroom, screeching to a halt before the stocky rotund guy with oily hair neatly parted to the sides and a check-shirt pulled taut over his hemispherical middle, standing at the centre of a three-quarter circle arrangement of benches, The Well in IIMA parlance, could see me. As I started the precarious journey towards my seat, he looked at me with a scornful dismissal, probably cursing himself for having to teach such morons like me who enter the classroom a gigantic two seconds late. I quietly slid myself into my seat, breathing a hundred times faster than I did when I won the solitary race (an Arithmetic-race in school) of my short-lived career in sports, a rare feat by my running standards. Of course, to reveal the secret, I won that race primarily because of my arithmetic skills, not running.
A heavy silence had descended on the room. Cold air flowing from the air conditioning vents above mixed with a strained nervousness and settled into the room, depositing itself on the pale faces, turning the room into a cold concentration chamber. Horror sat on the faces. Horror so heavy that it bent the heads. Everyone looked down. I opened the case mat, which until now was clinging to my armpits, and started sifting through the pages, silently, blending myself into the neighbourhood as much as possible. Attracting attention by making a rustling noise was the last thing I could dare do at this moment.
The professor spoke. His sarcasm-filled sharp voice ripped through the silence like a siren in the still of a dead night. He thought some of us were missing (in IIMA, the teacher doesn’t take the attendance; the teaching assistant does). He asked us to do a headcount so that he knew how many of thought his classes were worth a miss; how many dared to think the unthinkable. The count started at the extreme left-hand side corner of the innermost ring of benches, closest to the professor’s table. One; the next one looked up; Two. Then the next, and so it continued like a Mexican wave with people looking up before their turn came and immediately looking down after they got themselves a number. Most chose to look busy by turning back and forth the case mat pages or flipping through the notebooks. Yet some others pulled pens out of their pockets and started writing the date, time and the subject on their notebooks — they never usually do this in a class — to keep themselves busy with a plausible reason. I was among the last set of people, drawing lines repeatedly below the topic heading till the paper gave away and tip of the pen crossed over to deface the page below.
One of our batch mates was indeed absent from the class. I didn’t know why. In fact, no one did except for one poor chap who, by some cruel twist of fate, happened to be the dorm mate of the absentee. “Who are his dorm-mates?” blasted Professor RC. With trembling cadaver hands one guy spoke from the dumb audience, “I am, sir”. It seemed as if a mobile on vibration alert has gone off inside his mouth. The next 15 minutes were probably the most tense moment he would ever have in his bachelor life as he tried to defend his dorm mate who hadn’t returned from a weekend sojourn. His tongue frequently went dry as the rest of the class (rest means only those who didn’t come in the professor’s arc of sight) stole furtive looks at the goat who seemed to wait its turn to turn into kebab.
Time didn’t seem to move in his class. Even if it did, it was like a rickety road-roller moving on you – extremely slow and painful. In a room full of frozen watches and frozen body parts, only the prof moved, marching from one poor victim to another like a modern-day Alexander, taking pleasure in subjecting some of the best minds of India to 70 minutes of absolute helplessness. Unfortunately, by this time, 80 minutes had already passed. With that, also did pass a barrage of demeaning remarks, reprimands, half-baked jokes, self-inflicted laughter, new inventions in torture techniques and yes, some teachings too – though heavily coloured by his own (mis?) interpretations.
I surreptitiously looked at my watch. 10:20 AM. A shot put ball was being dragged through my caved gut. Having skipped the dinner the previous night and now the breakfast, I was seething in pain and hunger. It was already 10 minutes past the scheduled time. Yet he showed no signs of stopping.
10:30 is the time when the over-enthusiastic and purposely punctual mess boys close down breakfast. Two seconds late and the doors close right on your face. And you lose your righteous claim on the cold cereals that had waited so long for you.
10:25. The hands moved on. 10:26. The ticking of my watch now synchronized itself to the throbbing in my stomach. My food bag, like an untouchable road-side rag-rummaging urchin, was concave, deprived and neglected. It was almost bleeding now. I felt unconscious. Each second grew increasingly painful. Finally the Gods smiled on me when it dawned on the only motion-enabled creature in the room (I guess the mosquitoes, if any, would have died trying to suck blood from the bloodless bodies of the room) that it was time he stopped teaching the egocentric, immature and money-worshipping bunch of management wannabes. At 10:28 am the class ended. “Rest of the case, we will discuss tomorrow. Also, come prepared with the next case and the readings” were his musical parting words before the explosive mixture turned away from the collapsed bodies and vanished behind the creak of the collapsible door.
120 seconds and more than 1300 feet to go before I could land up at the mess door. That asks for about 11 feet a second. Certainly not easy. Not impossible either, I thought, almost forgetting my sporting history. Still I ran, leaving everything else behind. I had just one thing to take care of. My ailing stomach – denied its due for the past 21 hours.
When I reached the mess a huge queue, almost like a long centipede of some Amazonian rain forest, greeted me at the door, blocking the doorway. Through the narrow inverted V’s below the armpits I peeped inside into the semi-dark mess hall. A hot black iron plate sat on twin blue fires, on which some ten Uttapams — they looked like multiple moons against a perfectly black sky — slowly tanned their thin circular bodies. Time, like a mischievous kid, pricked and prodded the centipede and the queue increasingly got disoriented. The heads got misaligned as my friends ahead in the queue repeatedly and anxiously lifted themselves up to take an impatient peek at the hot iron plate. Some broke away, unable to take the endless wait. I calculated, as I always did. There were still 12 left in front of me. Assuming each consumed 1.5 Uttapams on an average (this figure is slightly on the lower side, but I had no other option than be desperately optimistic), at least 6 needed to leave the queue before I could hope to earn myself an onion-sprinkled, half-cooked, white-brown-porous-delight from the current batch. Poor probability taking into consideration several parameters such as the prof for their next class, their running ability, their propensity to eat an Uttapam (for example, whether they were from south or north), their body language for any signs of acute hunger. No. The probability of six or more leaving the queue was fairly low. I looked back. There were only ghosts of emptiness behind me. Again, pitifully, I was the last human being standing! (I used “Again” because standing last in a queue is a congenital malfunction I have carried to this day)
It was now 10:32. Economics class must already have started. If I waited for my turn, I would miss both – the Uttapam and the class. I decided to decide. Sometimes hard decisions like this need to be taken, even if it means keeping yourself grossly underfed and in writhing pain for the next 3 hours. I guess that is what management is also partly about. Or at least I understood it that way. Ailing stomachs may not last, but aching man must do. I left the queue leading to the furnace, grabbed from the breakfast table two trimmed pieces of bread joined by a thin layer of jam slapped on their inner sides, and left the dining hall, running and panting, again, to return to the classroom or rather the CR. CR-7 to be precise.
10:36. I entered the class. The economics professor was into writing something on the green-board. Yes, you read right. The boards in the CRs are green, probably because there is otherwise a serious lack of greenery inside the class. Like a cat having sighted a delicious rat, I entered the class in silent steps – calculating the pressure of each – while simultaneously feeling guilty for entering 6 minutes late. Though the professor is “chill” (the extremely rare and hence highly in-demand member of the “teaching class” who doesn’t bother you unnecessarily for little mischiefs such as coming late), adorable and nice, his classes are perfectly soporific, worthy of a recommendation from doctors, if you ever had sleeping disorders. Rest assured, your snore can wake up the dead even before the first Power Point slide got over. His laid-back words, his shallow eyes, his languid gait, his slow movement of hands, his vibrating moustache lining the sleepy lips, even his fevicoled hair that hardly moved (even when he came close to the air conditioning vents); everything that he has or did unleashed sleep-monsters who would bang your head on the desk and hold it still until you fell asleep.
The professor was teaching something on Nehruvian economics, the pre-liberalization India and things like that. Keeping yourself awake through these 70 minutes of anaesthesia is probably the biggest bet you can ever play with yourself. I tried hard. Not that I didn’t want to sleep. But I was among the very few people left in the class by the end of three gruelling semesters who didn’t sleep during lectures. To keep that rare reputation (though not quite appreciated in the hallowed campus) intact, I tried not to sleep. I pinched myself, squinted my eyes to read the board and tried to decrypt the indecipherable lines projected onto the white screen pulled from the roof. I imagined turning into a small child and playing with Nehru. Or sitting alongside Nehru and giving a power-packed lecture to the British to mind their own business and get the hell out of here. I also tried imagining Nehru in his trademark cap taking this class and calling out my name fondly to ask a question. No bloody thing worked. The lower halves of my eyes had turned into magnets, pulling the lids above into closing down. I fought against an overwhelming feeling of losing sense. To keep myself busy, I looked around.
It seemed as if the Uttapams were oversized sleep tablets. 60% of the class, in some way or other, slept, dozed off or prepared for similar in-class crimes. The gentleman at the extreme left hand corner of the outermost bench had fallen backward, head resting peacefully on the backrest and glasses reflecting off miniaturized tube lights of the roof, hiding behind them his eyes closed much before the class started. The lady sitting right in front of me had leaned forward, head on table between both her hands, her tresses crossing the width of the table and hanging silkily on the other side. Another gentle management-man on the front bench was “looking” at the professor, frozen, leaning forward sporadically and going back again with a quick instinctive jerk. The lady in the extreme right seat in the middle row was wagging like the wall clock pendulum – as if nodding a Yes to everything the professor said. She was the most consistent wagger of them all, her sleep-motions remarkably well rehearsed and indifferent to professors, subjects or time of the day. However, some alert friends lent their voices to what was otherwise a monologue. They asked questions, most of which were answers by themselves. Some repeated in their own language what the professor taught and yet some others asked doubts whose answers they knew themselves. I jotted down whatever I could hear and filled my note with words entirely unconnected to each other. In my half-sleep, complete sentences didn’t register on me. I copied graphs from the screen unconcerned about what they meant or showed or whether I drew them completely. Notes were important, I thought, no matter how they were taken. As the professor kept on rolling through slide after slide, my all-weather notebook filled itself with half-drawn graphs, with several lines precariously hanging here and there, independent of their axes. The 70 minutes of class-time lumbered past with tortoise-fast pace.
The third and last period was Finance. I was losing patience and my ability to think. The “fin” (short for finance) professor, though quite “chill” otherwise, insisted that we work out each case in detail before coming to his class. Worse, he called people at random to photocopy their notebook solution on to the green-board in front of 80 seemingly probing eyes. A scary thing to do, if you didn’t already know that 80% of them have least interest in what you write. I took a break and went outside the classroom before the third lecture started. I drowned my face in the cold drinking water, splashed some on my head and asked myself to feel better. Bear. ‘Just bear for 70 more minutes’, I told myself. The pain from my middle had now spread to my entire anatomy and I wasn’t sure anymore where it hurt. Or if it hurt at all. I was reduced to a blob of suffering mass.
When I returned to the class, the professor was already in, though it wasn’t time yet. He seemed to be doing some small talk with students in the front benches. But if you listened closely, you will probably be able to make out that these smart managers were asking seemingly unrelated questions (with plans to mix them all together later sophisticatedly to draw inferences) to the professor to figure out if there was a finance quiz that day. From what I later heard, the professor, in some complicated convoluted way (like exotic options or collateralized debt obligations or credit default swaps) had hinted at “no quiz”; or so my class mates thought.
The third lecture was not exactly eventful except that some people were frantically asking around for notes from the “regular” ones who had put together what looked like a solution to a previous problem. In the professor’s class, as long as you are armed with “a solution” — it doesn’t matter how terribly idiosyncratic it is or who originally created it or how many hands it had passed down — there is high chance that your physiological indicators stays within their normal and healthy range. To the professor, it didn’t matter whether you possess an “original” solution or a “manual photocopy” (the quick peek-and-scribble job usually completed during the 20 minutes of recess time between classes). While I was out splashing my face with water, some of my more enterprising friends kept themselves frantically busy inside the classroom, doing just this.
By now it was clear that the breakfast sandwich had miserably failed to break my fast. It had probably melted away in my stomach the instant it was thrown inside. The raging sulphuric acid boiled inside, burning down my stomach lining. The pain was once again getting unbearable. As the professor left the class, I hobbled my way towards the dining hall. While I kept moving past the chatting or shouting crème-de-la-crème of India’s brains, the dreaded word “quiz” hit my ears. One said, “I am sure there is going to be a fin quiz today. SFI has no quizzes; we had the Quant (Quantitative Techniques) quiz yesterday. Mark (Marketing Management) is in-class always and Eco (Economics, of course!) also doesn’t have a quiz. And we are done with MIS (Management Information Systems). OM (Operation Management) wouldn’t have a quiz until the current module is over. That leaves us with just fin. We are definitely having a quiz today, man”. What terrific logic! – I thought. But the appreciation quickly gave way to a morbid palpitation. In no time, the creepy bugs of fear had crawled out from my overturned can of apprehension. However, another disagreed – “Boss, last year there were only two fin quizzes before the mid-terms. Plus someone said that the Prof hinted at a “no quiz” today. I don’t think there will a quiz today”. As his words wafted into my ears, my palpitating heart cowering at a corner behind my ribcage was plastered with sandalwood paste. A cool assurance enveloped me. Right, there can’t be any quiz today. Last year there were only two fin quizzes before the mids. We are already done with two this year. Moreover, if the professor has hinted at a ‘no quiz’, it must be true. There and then, I renovated my vows to believe in God, the almighty who sometimes got upset with people like us – for we rarely spent any time to acknowledge his gracious presence in the campus (but did we have any time?) — and slipped into the professors’ minds to induce quizzes. My brand new faith in God threw in the final dose of assurance – there can’t be a quiz if I am so pathetically under-prepared. God, we can have the quiz tomorrow and I promise, I promise, I would prepare well. I was in the self-inflicted celebratory mood. Couple of my friends anxiously sought my comments on the possibility of a quiz, probably not to seek an answer but to hear what they so desperately wanted to hear. Nevertheless, like an expert, I explained to them why there couldn’t be any quiz today. They seemed more relieved than me and thanked me profusely for saving them. As if I was deciding their quiz-infested fates!
Later, unfortunately, I would realize, with pain scraping my behind, that I really did decide their fates on that day (and paid for it by getting four hard kicks on my fatless bottom from each of them).
Normally, during lunchtime, the dining hall is a microcosmic Kumbh Mela with most of the 300-odd first-years door-crashing at the same time. You would usually see multiple queues rubbing and crossing each other, originating from or finishing at — it depends on the way you look at — multiple food stations and the usual challenge is to remember and remain in the queue you joined originally. However, things were different that day. When I reached the place after a brief stop at the stationeries store, I found it to be ominously deserted. The second-years were chatting away idly while watching the newly installed television sets. I swept my glance across the floor. Only five from my batch, the first year fachhas. All my alarm systems went off and the freshly sedimented palpitations in the heart got unsettled and mixed up with the blood, again. Is there really a quiz today? My worst fears were confirmed when I asked a running batch mate. “Yes, we got a mail from the teaching assistant. Fin short quiz, 2:30 PM”. That’s it. The damage was going to be absolute! Consummate.
Given my level of preparation, I should ideally have left the place immediately and read whatever little was possible within the next one hour to manage a non-D-grade in the quiz. However, my burnt stomach was crying for food. I heaped my tray with whatever lay on the table and descended on them, unmindful of the noise I was making. Pieces of ice were dropping inside and the fire was cooling down.
I slurped to my heart’s content. And the upshot was brutally predictable.
It was a dangerous 1:50 PM by the time I was done with my lunch. There was no point in running back to the dorm (others might disagree). I already had run enough since morning. Moreover, I didn’t want to. As I started to walk slowly towards my dorm, the frequency of slippers sounds changed around me in a Doppler like effect. Some huffing-puffing runners threw surprised glances at me. I must say, it felt great. To walk with a kingly gait when the situation demanded retrograde running like pawns. Upon reaching my room I realized that I wasn’t in the shape to open the fat finance book and, squint-eyed, sniff out the killer formulas from pages of unfortunately-un-highlighted text. In short surprise quizzes like this, if you haven’t highlighted the important texts in the book, you better pray that the quiz is more about the finance minister’s hairstyle than about calculating the portfolio risk. Till 2:25, however, I flipped through the pages, pausing at graphs and formulas, pressing my temple hard to make space for them inside the one-bedroom flat of my head, when penthouses of my friends have been collecting them for several days now. There wasn’t much I could have done at that moment. No working out of past quiz papers, no discussing with neighbours, no revisiting the class notes (there weren’t any). Though I still cringed at the thought of appearing for a quiz and hoped everyday that a quiz, if any, happened any day starting the next day, the surprise quizzes offered little surprise to me. Quiz or no quiz, I was increasingly growing tolerant to the uncertainties of the campus life.
The classroom was a collector’s edition of facial expressions. While some tried to gauge the preparedness of others to calculate where they might stand in the relative grading when the results come out, others looked for expressions to give their despaired faces company. And feel the solace of having grade-neighbours in a cruel war for A-B-Cs. Upon instruction from the teaching assistant, I turned the quiz paper over, exposing the question. So far in finance, I knew ‘beta’ to be the only Greek letter. However, quite cruelly, almost all characters in the paper looked Greek to me. The next harrowing 15 minutes were spent sifting through the drifting formulas in my mind, with letters disintegrated from their expressions and flowing into one another to form a single gigantic formula; the formula of confusion, of mess and of the devastating feeling of not being able to attempt even a single question. I gave up, submitted the virgin answer paper and left the room. A severe guilt was ploughing through my mind; only if I had bothered to read the chapter earlier!
Walking back to my room with heavy steps, I climbed into the bed and dumped myself. I felt tired and battered. My eyes were closing down. I didn’t know for how long I had slept when I woke up to the intermittent beep of a Dbab (IIMA’s software notice board and messaging system) message on my computer. ‘Ashutosh, let’s go collect our quant quiz papers’, the message said. God! These people had to distribute the papers now? I had probably slept for about 10 minutes. Getting up from the bed was the last thing I wanted to do at that moment. But if I didn’t go to collect the papers, though I would eventually get to know my grades, how the teaching assistants arrived at that grade would remain a tantalizing secret to me, forever.
I needed to know my grades, and needed to fight for what is right. Not for a better grade, but for dignity. For not taking injustice silently. I looked at my paper. Marks had been snuffed out mercilessly. Though what I answered was absolutely correct, the method I employed wasn’t exactly familiar to the teaching assistant and thus, he had doled out to me my intimately familiar grade, a beautiful three-quarter circle without the pluses or minuses that it sometimes came with. Any argument was futile. I told him that I was unhappy with the grading and needed a re-evaluation. He nodded helplessly, indicating that it was not in his hands anymore. I wrote a crib on the paper itself and deposited it back, carefully inserting it into the middle of the stack so that my fabulous grade doesn’t become a public figure. More than anything else in the world, I needed sleep. However, I knew I could sleep only after sending a group meeting request. Unless I sent a request immediately for the meeting that was to take place later in the evening, it would provide a perfect excuse to 75% of my group mates for not coming to the meeting – on the pretext that they weren’t intimated well in advance. I opened my Dbab and saw two of my group mates online. I drafted the message, put meeting time as 7 pm and hit the ‘send’ button. As the message was sent, one of them went offline in an instant. Coincidence? Not really. That happened almost every time.I closed the door latch, put the phone off the hook and muted the computer. I couldn’t have allowed anyone within and outside the material world to disturb me at this moment. However, the architectural arrangement of my room ensured that during the only time I could afford myself some precious sleep, the scorching rays of Ahmedabad sun entered my room through the window panes (there aren’t any curtains to cover them up) to land with barbarous precision exactly where I rested my head. I folded the hand towel into several longitudinal folds and covered my eyes. To my great luck, the fan sounded like a jet engine; as if it had some square bearings. With only the digital alarm clock in apparently functional mode, I tried to sleep. Though I was perpetually sleep-deprived, I didn’t have any sleep disorders. I thanked myself for being able to sleep so easily with a jet engine roaring over my head and the sweltering heat making a bakery of my room.
A one hour sleep at this time wasn’t just an absolute need. It was why I had so far survived this place.
7:00 PM. That was when I woke up, not to my digital clock’s alarm, which had stopped trying to wake a dead man up about an hour ago, but to the instinctive alarms built into my body over the past three terms. I had overslept by one hour. This meant one more hour of study added to the piling backlog. I sent another reminder Dbab to my group mates regarding the meeting now, and waited. I knew nobody was going to come before at least 7.15 PM. I started the online file sharing program DC++ and checked out Dbab notice board (nb for short in IIMA) for any new movie added to the share. I started downloading some Hollywood rips. As usual, I browsed through the Dbab nbs; most of them were in bold, announcing the arrival of new messages. I always made sure that I read or at least browse through all the messages in the 70 or so notice boards that were added to my screen. I browsed through ‘Perspectives’, IIMA’s own online photo blog, and marvelled at the fabulous photographs taken by the students; checked out the birthday nb and my jaws dropped looking at creativity of some of our batch mates who had put together a wonderful birthday invitation PowerPoint. The best minds at work, I thought. A few stops at the marketing nb ‘Niche’ with some really intelligent and humorous advertisement clips, the adult humour nb, prevailed by one particular guy of our batch, and my first group mate entered the room.
It was 7:20. Over the next 20 minutes, 80% of my group mates dropped in one after the other while the rest of us kept on talking about anything but the group work. After I realized that the rest 20% were probably in no mood to attend, the real work started. Most came fully prepared; some only half. Arguments and counter arguments flew and what was supposed to be a short 1 hour meeting threatened to spill over to beyond the 8 pm dinner time. I checked our progress. We had hardly made any. The meeting was for making a marketing strategy presentation, in preparation for the random call in the marketing class the next day. Everyone had his (there was sadly no ‘her’ in our group) own strategy in mind and was unwilling to experiment with others’. Consensus wasn’t what we were looking at. Perspectives were what mattered. Ultimately, just one guy (which ultimately and unmistakably turned out to be ‘yours truly’, almost every time) might sum it up all, but the arguments helped for sure. Till about 8:45, we were discussing just the first case point with three more remaining to be addressed. As we ended up doing every time, we divided the questions among ourselves, 0.5 per head while I kept the responsibility to merge individual works into a projectable, coherent and plausibly single-source presentation.
When the meeting formally ended, it was about 9:00 PM, time when the dinner stopped being served and you needed to find alternatives in the TANSTAAFL (short for There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, IIMA’s private food plaza located right beside the mess and run by the same caterer). The rules of the breakfast applied to dinner too. Reach after 9 pm and you witness the food being dragged away into the kitchen right in front of your eyes, to be later fed to the management dogs and probably to some MBA wannabe monkeys, trying hard by dwelling in the IIM campus to move into the next level of Darwinian evolution. Dinner is probably the only high point during a day when you sit back, relax and enjoy the average and sometimes delicious meal while watching the overhead televisions playing channels that you absolutely have no control on.
Back from the dinner, I looked at the class schedule. Marketing presentation, SFI case readings, all related analysis and calculations, an MIS submission and case preparation for finance for tomorrow, Marketing and WAC submissions in the weekend and the SFI Project review the day after. Top it up with the backlogs that have been piling over the weeks and the week-long packaged honeymoon is ready. I smiled to myself. A remarkable similarity with the pending court cases in India, I thought. If the judiciary were to resolve all the pending cases without handling the new ones that popped up each micro second, it would take about 36 years for the backlog to clear – I read somewhere, some years back. If I were to clear only the backlogs…I shuddered to think further.
Settling down into my chair, I tried to prioritize things. The first criterion was the in-class dangers, including the genetic build of the professor who took the lecture; second, the possibility of a quiz or an assignment delivery the next day; third, the quantum of grade that is affected and finally whether I could tolerate any backlog in the subject (tolerance depended on how bad one is in the paper and what was the other subject being tested on the same day during the term exam). SFI by professor RC was by far, quite predictably, the first priority. As I opened the case mat and located the case, I felt terrible looking at the sheer number of pages that needed to be crammed before I could call myself half-prepared for the MBA-eater’s class. I switched off the monitor, flashing comfortably semi-clad beauties as screensaver, distracting me from the lines and lines of texts interspersed occasionally with graphs and tables. I knew I needed at least three hours before I could, albeit reluctantly, certify SFI as ‘done’ for the day. That makes it 12:30. Assuming I sleep at 4, I could have another three and half hours to put together the marketing presentation, solve the finance case and spend some time on the SFI project to be submitted day after tomorrow.
It was 3:30 when I was done with SFI and the Marketing presentation. My eyes were closing down frequently as I involuntarily kept on lurching forward, every time almost banging my head on the computer screen. All efforts to keep awake including browsing the Dbab and the internet, fast-forwarding through some Hollywood flicks, visiting some muggus (people who have an almost incurable desire to study, not just for grades but also as a hobby) who didn’t have the time to lift their heads up from their books to acknowledge my presence to their rooms, had failed. Finance, for the next day’s class, was almost completely left out. Half in my consciousness, I staggered the highlighter across the texts. As some letters rose on the magic touch of fluorescence, I felt happy. I was preparing a “solution” for the class!
It was 4:30 AM now and the overhead light had grown progressively dimmer. At least it seemed to. Things around me started to encircle me in a smoky haze and I was awake only in staccato moments. Vital supplies to my brain were shutting down one after the other and I knew I was falling asleep. It could be pretty similar to dying I suppose. I somehow gathered myself out of the chair and staggered up to the balcony. I looked around. The campus dogs howled at nobody at a distance. Through the open balcony door, other geometrical dormitories shone like capacitors on an illuminated circuit board. The golden campus light added a sepia glow to the monolithic classrooms sitting gigantically across the walkway. A chorus of tempo shouts dislodged the silence of the night. IIMA was very much awake at this otherwise ungodly hour. As I had come to realize, the evening in the campus had just started.
A cool peacefulness doused me. It felt like the touch of an antiseptic aftershave. For the past several months I had complained about the high-handedness of the professors, the stupidity of the teaching assistants, the extreme study pressure, the unnecessary submissions and resubmissions, the terrible grading patterns, the meals, the facilities, the readings and every other thing about this place. Yet, at this hazy hour of tiredness, all that mattered no more. It’s a place I worshipped. A place I longed to come to. There was pain, but with pain came sweet memories. Of hardly studying and mostly gossiping in the name of discussion, while watching the black of an entire night vaporize into the white fumes of the morning, of sharing cold Maggi, of running to the pantry in acute hunger only to find it empty, of thirty minutes of morning-routine crammed into three minutes, of running to the quiz without calculator, of ordering pizzas and tearing apart its sectors, of group meetings that discussed more on limited-supply girls in campus rather than the case for the next class, of predicting quizzes and getting it wrong, of getting drenched on a cold birthday night, of kicks from the ones you love and love from the ones you kick, and of cakes that were less of a food and more of a face cream. I was learning to manage friends, their arguments and disagreements, frustrations and criticisms, the pressures of study, extreme competition and expectations, the difficult decisions, multi-tasking and prioritizing, the negotiations with TAs, the fighting for justice (read grades), the mad regard for deadlines, the absolute respect for original work (though we all slipped occasionally) and punctuality down to the seconds.
5 AM. Before the final strand of sense snapped and I started my free-fall into the abyss of the dark empire of sleep, I felt I was probably growing into a manager, with each passing 20-hour day; with each non-existent night.
The same familiar shrillness. I looked at the clock. 8:50 AM. I sleep-smiled. A hell lot of 300 seconds to go before I needed to wake up. I pulled the blanket over me and retreated into the “Night”. Or whatever was left of it.