Commentary

Engineering mass mentality: 86 kilos of rejection, from Kashmir to Chennai and back

When a student from the mountains finds home in the marine land of Chennai, a hackneyed Kashmir to Kanyakumari link often surfaces. But in this particular case, it is a dark humour of the ‘86 Kilos of rejection’.

Four distant years ago, in the blistering and sultry, sweltering and humid, fly-buzzing, stained-damp-armpit Chennai summer of 2013, I realised that I had not known for a week what the hoarding hovering over my classroom door said. As I am writing this, I am also Googling what SRM stands for. SRM, my college. SRM, mera mandir.  Sri Ramaswami Memorial University, it says. I don’t think I would have ever guessed.

The lecture was chemistry and the curiosity was overbearing. Not for the lecture, (of course) but for the hoarding hovering over my classroom that reeked of fresh paint. What was it, after all? What was the branch that I had been assigned? I had not known. I had not cared. But right now, it was important. My muscles were twitching involuntarily, my knee was popping, my nails were being bitten (by me) and their carcasses were plunging to the abyss that was the floor: everything was more important. I did not know. I just had to know.

I did not know.

The author in Mahabalipuram

At some subconscious level, hidden within the labyrinths of the creases of the lump of muscle we call a brain, we were all unaware of our immediate futures, let alone the distant, and the ‘paths’ we had taken to reach where we were. At some point, we had all not cared. We were all scattered in our minds, thrown at the seams. Mine was just more in shambles.

One fine blue day, as I was sitting in the examination hall, writing yet another future-deciding paper of the seventh semester of my undergraduate degree, I just found myself clueless, staring mouth-wide-open into a distance outside the window. Radio Silence.

A long time passed before I could feel an anomaly appear seconds away from my blind spot, in the corner of my eye, before the invigilator stopped in front of me, startled me, and said “Hey, Mr. Blank Paper. Not writing ah? Why you coming here then? Why you waste parents’ money, aa?”

With a herculean effort, I turned my neck 29 degrees to the left and looked through her.

And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Between the two of us, she was the one who was uneasy. So, she looked away, one-third understanding, one-third awkward, one-third disgusted.

The clueless comrades.

Funny thing is; schools are all about promoting multi-potentialism. Thou shalt indulge all existent curriculars, they say.

In all things be men...
Industria Floremus
Service before self…
Virtue and labour…
You are the eagle; to soar is your destiny…

Paradoxically, college is all about a singular focus, a path: a straight path to success, a pseudo-feeling of pseudo-achievement, a delusional fairy-tale heading spirally up a cliff, and off it, a pursuit of an ending, a happy ending in a continuous life, rendering the human potentially impotent. It is almost as if the colleges (engineering colleges, especially) are designed to imbibe in a growing mind a special sense of defeat, and a perpetual sense of disappointment. Baby Boomer Special.

An ideal Indian child listens. An ideal Indian child listens all his life, and answers all the right answers to all the ‘right questions’, (What would you do if you became the prime minister? Sir, I don’t even know what we are being taxed for. Are you high?) up until the threshold of his/her puberty, where he/she has to make a life decision.
“So, dear offspring, what have you decided to pursue for the rest of your life? Here is an illusion of a choice.”

“But…”

“Also, while you are at it, prepare your retirement papers.”

The orientation days consisted of tours around the college, getting us familiar with the different departments and the faculty of the giant that was SRM University. A live tour of over half a century of intellect trapped within these very walls. In retrospect, I would have preferred taking the freshers on a tour of the bathrooms and shown the use and miracles of pulling the archaic chain dangling from just below ceiling; or using a toilet flush. That stuff is an apocalyptic epidemic. Three years on, they would thank me for that.

At the end of this program, we would be programmers regurgitating the protocol, day-night-day-night, our work less technical than call centre employees, our salaries more modest than a modest mendicant. We could be outsourced, as labour, or better, or worse; one could imagine a consignment of freshly cheated engineers being shipped off to a non-descript location, to be tested on, cut open with knives, only to be found empty.

­Four years and several accreditations later, we would be anything but quality: almost-hollow well-made elastic cartons of industrial bio-waste, yet again needing to be hollowed, washed, and cleansed in the image of our ventriloquists.

A local railway station in a metropolitan.

A few months ago, we had spent not many weeks in too many metropolitans, along too many highways, booking cabs, left, right, and centre, living our neighbour’s dreams, being spoon-fed our passions by our respective Sharma jees.

Sharma Jee and Sons: the omnipresent national counselling consultancy.

Galgotias, SRM, Amity, Counselling, Consultancy, ‘Donation’, Degree – the corporatisation of a dream, the consumerism in knowledge, the brain drain to the next drain.

The most informed/uninformed decision ever made in the blink of an eye.
The most calculated/uncalculated decision ever made in a fortnight.

Personally, I call it the Education Industry. I know, I know. All this sounds like the prelude to the next hippie-white-trash-trailer-conspiracy-theory, the next big fantasy, the next work of fiction, but then again, even the best work of fiction derives inspiration from the real and the mundane.

It functions on efficiency, our very lucrative Education Industry does; the efficiency of a system to manufacture a mass mentality, the highest number of machines made per minute, large bands of marching primates, left-right, left-right, black-white, black-white, because (trust me) clones work better when they work as clones.

Wait, we were talking about the hoarding over my classroom. Forgive me. I must have the attention span of a fruit fly. The hoarding. Right.

Just a few weeks earlier, while sitting in one of the ‘consultancies’ in one of the ‘malls’ in Kashmir, being assigned the ‘right path’ for my future, sitting tight in a corner, with folded toes, and a quivering lower lip, I felt like a medieval Indian bride: the amalgam of acceptance and defiance. Acceptance: the fourth and the final stage of a culture shock. Acceptance: the superpower of a nubile school- going kid. The Nutshell metaphor dictates that I end this now. The hoarding.

All this while, I had not known what branch of computer engineering I was in. All this while, I had not known which house I was in. I bet Sharma Jee did. Engineered ignorance. Engineered apathy.

In a painful, yet Biblic retrospect, when the counselling in the colleges was going on, they could have done a lot better by demonstrating on giant white walls, and elaborate PowerPoint Presentations, tricks and prose on how not to get cheated by landlords, wardens, the police, and (much) more often than not, by the college itself. The justifiable highway robbery. White collar savagery.

Barely a ten percent of the inhabiting college population walks out with a degree they are happy with, or a degree that matters; and that’s me being generous. The graduation ritual.

After an age long moral debate, and half a fortune spent, and squabbles with the teachers, one only comes to realise that the teachers and the students are both the victims of the same system, the either only trying to inflict as much pain as was inflicted on the other.

In a welcome air like that, one craves home. Home in Chennai is Mahabalipuram. Mahabalipuram, or Mamallapuram, along the eastern coast of the Indian State: lined along some streets with the ever so famous Kashmiri handicraft shops: a little Kashmir in a little coast. Only a Kashmiri understands the comfort in walking up to a random Kashmiri and being able to spark up a conversation just about anything. Home in Chennai is…

The 2014 floods which lay waste to the Srinagar city, and the subsequent 2015 floods in Chennai which engulfed that part of the country, had more in common than one could imagine.

Prelude to the rains in chennai which led to one of the worst floods in the state

As inhuman as it sounds, it felt like home.

Besides the ginormous amount of damage inflicted on the cities, the countless vehicles rendered a floating waste, the vast farming fields turned into marshlands, there was one thing was that common: complaints from both the geographical extremities of India about having felt left out from the national rescue vigour, and the consequent media coverage. National empathy, minus dissenters.    

The deluge of waters and sentiment was confined to impermeable, almost visible barriers of the state, just like the immediate relief. The national empathy didn’t pour in.

All for one nation. One Nation for all?

Not more than a month ago, I had started packing up my life in Chennai and stacked it into big ol’ discarded maggi boxes, getting ready for a long overdue trip home after a not-so-bad exile.

Eighty six Kilos of Chennai, I thought, is not enough of Chennai.

Two-hundred-and-ten Kilos in an Ola Cab, a part of which was to go to Kolkata, another to Allahabad and mine to Kashmir. The other two parts that didn’t belong to me were dispatched to their destinations, all safe and sound, and hale and hearty and all things nice.

The remaining part, my part, however, was slapped in the face with an embargo. “Sorry sir, any other place we send for sure but not Kashmir, sir”

86 Kilos of rejection.

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