Sunday, May 30, 2010


A tragic news item today brought back some memories. A girl studying in an engineering college in Kelambakkam near Chennai was spotted by the college chairman (who happened to also be her relative) sitting next to a boy and - horrors - talking to him. He scolded her, whereupon she went to her hostel room and committed suicide by hanging herself.

The memory this brought back was of attending a summer school at IIT Madras in 1976. In those days, IIT's were nasty, forbidding places (at least the ones in Madras and Delhi). The organiser of our National Science Talent summer school, whom I'll call Prof. R, was a rude, obnoxious and overbearing person. Beyond all this, he had an obsession -- that boys and girls should not mingle under any circumstances. We were ordered to sit in separate halves of the class. This was unexpected and quite bizarre at least for those of us who had come from Bombay. We already knew our batchmates and since we had never received any warning about the dangers of opposite-sex fraternisation, we simply treated them as fellow students with a reckless disregard for gender.

Now what I remember particularly about Prof. R. is that his obsession for gender separation appeared to coincide with an obsession for one of the girls in the class. He would constantly try to talk to her, alone, and warn her about the dangers of fraternising with boys.

Cut to about six or seven years ago and a similar incident took place in Bombay. At this time no one (certainly in Bombay) would dare suggest that students be physically separated by gender in class. This is what happened instead: I was informed by a senior institute administrator that a certain girl was illegally staying in a boy's room in the hostel, that he (the administrator) had information that her modesty was in danger, and that in his view the authorities should raid the hostel room and "rescue" her. The entire story sounded to me quite fabricated. How did he have advance information about what was to happen to her? Apparently from a friend of the girl's parents. I then met this "family friend" who told me he had known the girl since she was a child, that she had fallen into "bad company", and that we needed to save her before something terrible happened. But to me, his tone betrayed a very questionable obsession about the girl.

The next step turned out pretty simple - I located the girl, gave her a very abbreviated version of the story and asked her if she was in any sort of trouble. She smiled brightly and said she wasn't, and that the boy she was visiting (not staying with) was her fiancé. They were soon to get married, their parents had met each other etc etc. She couldn't imagine what the problem was. Wishing I didn't have to do this, I had her call her father on my mobile and he confirmed her story. So what was this family friend getting all worked up about? (remember he had nearly brought about a raid to "rescue" her!) The young lady revealed a plausible reason. On her arrival in Bombay she had initially stayed with him (he lived alone) and had soon begun to feel uncomfortable with the way he looked at her and questioned her closely about her activities. So she moved out to her own lodgings. The "family friend" did not take this well and the above story was the result.

Back to the story I started with. Apparently the chairman of this engineering college in Kelambakkam discovered the girl was hanging out with boys when he surveyed CCTV footage of the students. I don't want to speculate on why he was surveying this footage and beyond the newspaper report I know nothing about this case, which presumably will be investigated. Let's hope it bears no analogy with the two cases I've described above.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Be stupid

Finally, an ad campaign that I can enthusiastically endorse.

Yesterday, for reasons I can't quickly make up (possibly the heat and some wine I had at a lunch party) I ended up in a Bombay mall called "Palladium". Its highlight, if you can call it that, is the Diesel store, and this company's highlight, in turn, is an ad campaign called "Be Stupid". My boundless curiosity later led me to the online Diesel catalogue (by catalogue they don't mean something listing their products, but rather a 15 page advertising booklet) and I've helpfully extracted the basic principles of their campaign for my readers. The following are all verbatim quotes.

(i) Stupid, you see, is the relentless pursuit of a regret-free life.
(ii) Smart may have the brains, stupid has the balls.
(iii) Smart may have the authority, but stupid has one hell of a hangover.
(iv) To be stupid is to be brave. The stupid aren't afraid to fail.
(v) Stupid is the first guy who realised you could extract and synthesize the humble coca leaf into a fine, white powder.
(vi) Stupid means listening to your heart versus listening to your head.

As an indication of where the world is going, I think this is truly impressive. Of course some of this campaign isn't freely distributed in India, for example point (v) about cocaine, or the pictures in the catalogue of a girl trying to copulate with a phallic pillar.

So maybe we in India aren't completely ready to "be stupid"? Or maybe we are. I really did enter the Diesel store yesterday and here's what happened. A "chick" flounced over to me and smiled winningly. Considering the vile manners of mall employees in Bombay this was a bit of a plus. I smiled and asked her "what do you sell here?". Without a pause she replied "just about everything, except ourselves". I tottered like a leaf in a breeze and then tried the line I had prepared. "My friend and I aren't stupid, so is this store really for us?". Again there was no pause. "Well if you buy everything we want you to buy, by the end of it you'll feel pretty stupid."

Pausing only to read the price tag on a pair of cargo shorts (Rs 8,245/-), I left. But I can't help feeling I had met Diesel's only truly honest - and non-stupid - employee.