Saturday, June 26, 2010


I am no film buff, but I remember the Raj Kapoor film ‘Bobby’ very well. This 1973 Bollywood film was widely popular. Dimple Kapadia debuted in the film playing the daughter of a poor fisherman Jack Braganza (played by Prem Nath). It gave the first leading role to Rishi Kapoor as the son of a rich businessman Mr Nath (played by Pran). Numerous movies in the following years in several languages were inspired by this plot.

It is not for these reasons or because it was a trend-setter which introduced the genre of teenage romance with a rich-vs-poor clash as a backdrop that I remember the movie. There are two very different reasons.

The first of them can be called a story within a story. It needs some elaboration. I saw the movie one Sunday in the Globe Cinema in Calcutta. There was this scene in the film where the mother is busy in the kitchen preparing a meal for the family. She is cutting a big fish when the distraught daughter comes to the kitchen and breaks the news to her mother – that she is expecting. The mother is shocked and turns hysterical; she drops the knife and the fish, as the whole world comes crumbling down.

It is an emotion-charged moment and the audience is tense. From the front row, someone shouts, ‘O maacchh-ta kothey gaye-lo?’ (Loosely translated as: What happened to the fish?) As a Mallu who likes his fish, I could commiserate with the piscophagic Bong brother.

The second is that all along, I had thought only boys were named ‘Bobby’ and this movie proved me wrong. Dimple, the young heroine was ‘Bobby’ here.

In later years, during my stint in Punjab, I had an overdose of unisex names. (Not that Kerala does not have its share: Money, Baby, Joy, Shine, Jolly etc being some.) Amrinder, Parminder and Shivinder could be a Kaur or a Singh.

Thereby hangs a puzzle:

My wife used to teach in a co-ed school in Patiala. She was the class teacher in Class X C of the school. Gurinder and Bhupinder were the Monitor and the Assistant Monitor of the class.

On the first day, she asked Gurinder: How many of you are girls?

Gurinder replied: 5/14 of my classmates are girls.

She repeated the question to Bhupinder.

Bhupinder replied: 3/8 of my classmates are girls.

What are the genders of Gurinder and Bhupinder?

Some may think this is a trick question and others may even dismiss this as having nothing do with mathematics! But if you apply yourself carefully, you can see that if both were girls, their answers would have been identical. Similarly, if both were boys, their answers would have been identical.

The fact that the answers that Gurinder and Bhupinder different makes it clear that they are of different genders.

Compare 5/14 and 3/8. We see that 5/14 = 20/56 and 3/8 = 21/56. Obviously, Gurinder is a girl and Bhupinder is a boy.

If it is not ‘obvious’, and further explanation were needed, it can be inferred that the person who says that the lesser fraction, namely, 20/56 (and not 21/56) of classmates are girls is a girl herself [and the person who says 21/56 (and not 20/56) of classmates are girls is a boy]. Therefore Gurinder is a girl and Bhupinder is a boy.

In case a mathematical solution is required, let the number of boys and girls be b and g respectively.

If Gurinder is a boy and Bhupinder is a girl, Gurinder’s statement means ‘g/(b + g - 1) = 5/14’ and Bhupinder’s statement means ‘(g – 1)/(b + g - 1) = 3/8.Subtracting, 1/(b + g - 1) = 5/14 – 3/8 = ( - ) 1/56 which is not possible. Therefore Gurinder is a girl and and Bhupinder is a boy.

Further research: As Gurinder is a girl and and Bhupinder is a boy, Gurinder’s statement means ‘(g – 1)/(b + g - 1) = 5/14’ and Bhupinder’s statement means ‘g/(b + g - 1) = 3/8.Subtracting, 1/(b + g - 1) = 3/8 – 5/14 = 1/56. This means (b + g) = 57. Substituting in g/(b + g) = 3/8, g/56 = 3/8 or g = 21. Therefore b = 36.

Sanity Check: What Gurinder, a girl, says means !21 - 1)/(57 - 1) = 5/14. What Bhupinder, a boy, says means 21/(57 - 1) = 3/8.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Books, Anyone?

‘The house is getting cluttered,’ everybody started complaining. (After our kids left home for studies circa 2003 and then started working, we’re empty-nesters: it is just the two of us at home. Now you know who’s the everybody doing the complaining!)

Jokes apart, my brother-in-law who came home on a visit called my wife aside and admonished her, ‘What have you done to this house? It was such a nice little place when I came last! Look at this now. Worse than a railway platform!’

My older son who came on a short holiday announced, ‘This house needs to be de-cluttered.’ The next time I come, it’ll be on a month’s leave and I’ll take up the task.’

There a lot of bric-a-brac collected from all sorts of places over four decades – marble statuettes from Bhedaghat near Jabalpur to brassware from Moradabad, lacquered toys from Sankhed in Gujarat, phulkari from Sunam in Punjab, boomerang from Australia and the niniature of the ‘Mannekin Pis (The Pissing Boy)’ from Brussels, what have you.

The major chunk of what constitutes the ‘clutter’ is books. I was a bibliophile since my student-days and after I started earning, I have been buying books. My wife has her own collection of books before our marriage. Our personal collections got married in January 1976 along with us. As our family grew, so did the books. Only, it was not pro rata. With the addition of two kids, the size of the only doubled, but the size of the library grew ten-fold, if not more.

And we have been subscribing to excellent magazines. Apart from the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest and the National Goegraphic, we had the Economic and Political Weekly, The American Review, Seminar and the like.

How do you de-clutter? We asked the school nearby if they could accept the books. The Principal shooed us away thinking we were selling books. When we clarified that we wanted to donate and not sell the books, she suspected that we were planting books that might corrupt the mind of the youth – spreading messages of fundamentalism or violence against one sect or another!

We tried another tack: why not approach government-run libraries? The State Central Library flatly refused: we have no space for any more books. In fact, we are scared that the books from the British Library which closed down a couple of years back will come to us. (Yes, the librarian used the word ‘scared’!)

The University Library said: Please give us a list of the books (In quintuplicate, if you please!) so that we can see if we do not have any of them. We’ll take only such books as we do not have on our shelves.

He sounded as if Article 43 Clause (12) Subclause (k) of the Service Regulations of the Librarians of the University of Kerala stated that the retirement benefits of a librarian are liable to be forefeited if multiple copies of the same book are found in the stock.

A friend told us of a school being run by a former bureaucrat for the underprivileged classes. She was delighted to hear about our offer. The books would be a welcome addition to their library.

So a few dozen cartons of books will soon be moving out of our house to the school library. I feel as if a part of me were being removed but I am happy in the thought that instead of gathering dust, the books would hopefully would be read by scores of boys and girls.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

On Growing Old

Thanks to the social networking sites like Orkut, Facebook and the like which ask for your birthday and remind all your ‘friends’ a couple of weeks ahead of your birthday that your big day is coming up, the other day I was felicitated on my birthday over a hundred times by ‘scraps’, on my ‘wall’, everywhere. Add to that my credit card company, my bank, my travel agent, my share broker, my mobile service provider, my broadband service provider, Jet Airways and the Oberoi group of Hotels whom I used to patronize once upon a time; SMS and e-mail messages from all of them too greeted me on the occasion.

When I was a child, we did not ‘celebrate’ birthdays in our home. A mandatory visit in the dawn to the temple and a ‘paayasam’ for lunch, that was about it. And when you grew up and went away, even those tokens faded away. Many birthdays passed unnoticed, for there was nobody to remind you that the day was a special one.

I have noticed that people who have crossed fifty do not like to celebrate birthdays. With advancing age, it appears that man’s cheery disposition gives way and anxiety becomes his constant companion. It is not for nothing that the philosophy that our forefathers handed down to us reminds us constantly of the impermanence and the transient nature of Life. The inexorable flow of time brings about changes – lack of joy (which is not sorrow) and numbness (which is not despair) shroud the mind. We see that there is good reason why the wise sages christened the God of Death as ‘Kaal’ which happens to be a synonym for Time.

We know that Time, in its quest, robs us of several things. The very thought that it snatches away your precious possessions, as teenage makes way for youth, youth for middle age and middle age for old age, is indeed unnerving. The past always looks more appealing than the present because looks, health, elegance and smartness wane with time. In a sense, we seem to be running back from the harsh reality that ‘Today’ is to the magnificent dream that ‘Yesterday’ was.

This perhaps explains why the photographs people tender for getting ID cards etc are always those taken when they were younger. What is the emotion that you feel when you see Waheeda Rahman or Meena Kumari on Chitrahaar and reflect that she is on the wrong side of eighty now? Anxiety, sympathy or relief?

Middle-aged couples who take a long sigh after taking a look at their wedding photographs undergo very complex emotions which extend beyond worries about the charm they exuded in the past. Distress arising from fear of death and helplessness of the defenceless create a chiaroscuro in their minds.

Even as we accept that the most exquisitely chiselled body, in time, would change beyond recognition and then disappear, we nurse the hope, irrational though it is, that we can halt the inexorable flow of Time. We have the skill to fabricate myths that deceive ourselves – like false teeth, wigs and stuff. The mainstay of the cosmetic industry is man’s propensity for self-delusion – the belief that hair dye, skin creams and facepacks, botox and plastic surgery can arrest aging.

But then, why don’t we realize that Time is smarter than all of us put together? We cannot beat Time; our efforts are easily trivialized, nay, neutralized by it. You may dye your hair, but the wrinkles on your skin will show up. You try plastic surgery, and arthritis will get you. You wear contacts, Time will give you a weak ear. Time has a way of getting at you, whatever you do.

But then, Time has a sense of justice too. Even as it robs you of a precious asset, it gives you another. As it snatches youth, you gain in experience. As you lose your parents, you are blessed with grandchildren; as you forefeit mobility, you gain the ability to introspect.

How futile it is to sigh, leafing through the album of youth or to worry about the physical infirmities instead of embracing Life, and welcoming each day confidently, gratefully, without setting conditions!

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Internet Cafe

Those were the early days of computerization in banks. The Reserve Bank of India had drawn up an ambitious scheme of computerization that would ultimately result in networking of branches, ATMs, real time transactions and settlements etc. They were breathing down the necks of Chairmen and Managing Directors of banks who were breathing down the necks of Executive Directors who were breathing down the necks of …

There was a direction from the Reserve Bank of India that the Board of Directors of banks should oversee the implementation of computerization. Towards this end, banks were asked to submit a monthly progress report containing details like the number of computers installed, branches computerized, ATMs installed, the extent of computerization in percentage terms and the like.

One of the directors of the bank I was working for in those days was a youngish management expert. He had had exposure abroad and knew a thing or two about computerization. Having worked for a couple of years in another bank before going abroad for higher studies, he understood banking as well. Naturally, he used to take keen interest when the item on computerization came up for discussion in the Board.

The initial resistance of employees to computers had not yet been overcome. Even those who were interested in learning how to use a PC were afraid of using them for fear of damaging them. Lectures on computerization had not made the desired impact. In short, the progress was rather slow.

It was not just the employees, most of those at the top echelons too were luddites and totally ignorant of how technology worked, how it could be harnessed and how it could make the office a better place to come to and work in, with more time for quality and reactivity, as it would throw drudgery out of the seventh floor window.

The Board, charged with the task of monitoring the progress, was patently exercised over the tardy pace. In one of the meetings of the Board of Directors, a director suggested that there should be a brainstorming session on the steps that could be taken to remove the fear factor. Several ideas were mooted.

I was an invitee to the meeting in my capacity as a General Manager of the bank. Though not in charge of computerization, I shared the experience in one of the departments under my control. It was headed by an enterprising Chief Manager who too was troubled over the lack of enthusiasm on the part of his staff in embracing technology.

He loaded a few simple games like hangman, bricks and word fun in the computer which everybody had access to but few were handling. During lunch hour, he played computer games, sitting alone. Some who passed by stopped to watch. Soon, there were more viewers and interest spread. Many of the spectators turned players.

Employees were allowed to play computer games before and after office hours and during lunch hour. Initially, there were more viewers than players but soon enough, it caught on. They found that the PC was, after all, not a dangerous animal! Then they started using it for office work. In due course, they discovered how PCs helped eradicate the drudgery of routine work. In no time, most of them acquired basic skills like word processing, spreadsheet etc. and had learnt how to surf the net and dig out information.

This appealed to the young director. Making PCs freely available to the employees would encourage them to use it. This, he hoped, would familiarize employees with the machine as it happened in the case described by me. He suggested that in any unit like the Head Office or the Zonal Offices with a large number of employees, the bank could set up an internet café with free access to the employees.

Upon which the CEO said, ‘We have well- appointed and hygienic canteens at the Head Office and the Zonal Offices which serve excellent coffee and tea to the employees both in the forenoon and the afternoon, that too at subsidized rates, using the Staff Welfare Fund.’