The Epiphanies of Summer Training

By the end of our third-year summer training, two things became abundantly clear to me.

First, that I will likely live through a nuclear holocaust. And second, that I was not going to make a career running blast furnaces and Linz-Donawitz converters - not my thing, I would realize.

The weeks preceding the internship were dreary - if not tragic. The college was ensnared in a jaundice epidemic of epic proportions; over eighty percent of the hostel residents were affected by it. It was crazy. Everyone looked yellow and alleged that others did - talk of a jaundiced view of the world. The college dispensary was in overdrive, prescribing medicines (that, as usual, cured nothing), and writing away medical certificates.

The quacks of Rourkela performed thumping business coming up with miraculous "Ayurvedic" cures for jaundice.

The college authorities were sleeping at the wheel.

In a couple of weeks, the college was shut down, the mess was closed, and the water connections (which were found to be reason for the epidemic) were stopped.

Those that could, fled to their homes, like rats deserting a sinking ship.The final years had to stay back as their semester exams were around the corner. This was, after all, the last time they had to rote their lessons and "give" their exams (which is how we characterized the activity of writing exams). Come what may; jaundice or plague, they were determined to brave it out and get the wretched degree in their hands.

An unfortunate few, like me, who were still in the third year, had to stay back for forty-five more days, for mandatory training at Rourkela Steel Plant (RSP).

Summer was at its peak and the mercury often touched forty eight degrees Celsius. The training started early at 7 am in the morning and ended by 1 pm. It was a hogwash, as was the one from the previous year.

Exactly a year ago, I had been comfortably ensconced in the familiar environs of my sister's home in Bangalore and took training at the relatively plush foundry at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). I was a year younger and hence a lot less cynical, and took my non-ferrous metallurgy, precision casting, and ductility of alloy steels, quite seriously.

But I also had my priorities clear. The exquisite food at the HAL executive canteen was a clear attraction. I was one of the first to arrive at the canteen and once I devoured over multiple servings of food, took long walks around the HAL campus. The timings were not regulated and the authorities were lax. After maybe the second week, I started leaving right after lunch. I had found friends that I could hang out with in nearby Indira Nagar and I went out for movies, played cricket, and did other fun stuff with them. I had a great time!

How things had changed in a year! Bangalore's temperate weather and my sister's home comfort gave way to the notorious Rourkelan summer, and the jaundice-stricken hostels.

To make matters worse, the training was a lot more organized in RSP!

We all had to travel by the college bus. The security didn't let us out without permits. So, we had to clock the entire six hours every day. We were shown the plants and offices over the first hour or so and made to sit around for the next five hours, with nothing to do. A few enterprising folks, sang songs, recited shaayaris, and cracked jokes, to while away time and keep others entertained. After a few weeks, however, we were wary of the routine - the jokes and the shaayaris were getting contrived and repetitive.

The food at the steel plant was horrible; to a point where we started missing the mess food.

Within a matter of days, I hitched up with a few final years to cook our own food once we returned - the final years from classes and me from training. Through a summer of scorching heat and depressing boredom and desperation, we followed the same routine for forty days. We came back to the hostel, around one thirty; then, sat around, cut vegetables feverishly, and prepared food in meditative silence - we didn't have the energy to even exchange pleasantries - and then ate the food.

Due to the stoppage of the water connection, we had to ration the water that we fetched from a few kilometers away and use it ultra-judiciously.

When we ate the simple dal/sambhar, rice, and pappad, by 2.15 pm or so, it was the only thing that offered succor to a bunch of bruised souls. We, then, forced ourselves to a quick nap that lasted for half-hour as the power was cut off, due to summer "load shedding", precisely at 3 pm. In the heat and sultriness, it was impossible to sleep without the fan. We spent the time between 3 pm and 6 pm at Back Post in darkness. We followed the same routine every day. Even the stimulating environment of Back Post helped little to cheer us up.

Our life had become an under-funded, Malayalam art movie and a 1980's Doordarshan Tuesday drama, combined!

On one of the days at training, a gregarious, middle-aged engineer, an alumnus of REC Rourkela and employed at the steel plant, took us to the "restricted area" of the Blast Furnace, through the control room, right into the garba griha of the Steel Plant. It was awful - the air heavy with simmering heat and particulate dust, and the steady din of machinery and flowing molten metal. I looked around at the workers that made a living in this hellhole. Their eyes were in a daze and they looked at me forlornly. This is what the biblical "fire and brimstone" of eternal damnation must look like, I had thought.

"Sir, how do you work at this place? It is so hot!", I asked the engineer, as we came out.

He smiled. "You will get used to it", he said, quite convincingly. I didn't think so.

When I returned to the air-conditioned comfort of the control room and felt the stark contrast of the surroundings, the lazy bum in me, once again, came to the fore, to make a sweeping career decision. There is no way I am going to spend a life time in the company of molten alloys and steel, I said to myself. My romance with metallurgical engineering had ended.

At the end of forty-five days, as I took the thirty four journey back to Madras, I wrote my epitaph onto the "training diary".

I had to choose another gig...

A Priceless Encounter @ Parsippany

I tried to get them in...but in vain. Hardly a couple of my class mates had signed up.

Persistent convincing from Ravindra and relentless follow-ups from the convener, Sribatsa, had made me register for the NITR overseas alumni meet, but I was likely not going to attend. I had my excuses rehearsed...I was jet-lagged from a recent trip to India, none of my classmates were joining...blah blah blah.

Finally, the clincher was the three hundred and fifty bucks that I had paid as convention fees.

"That seems a hefty sum. Just go and attend, at least, to justify the money that you shelled out" my wife, Jayanthi, reminded me, begrudgingly.

Let's get one thing straight. In spite of the apparent cynicism, I love NIT Rourkela. I spent the best four years of my life there. My best friends around the world are all NITR alumni. I just look for a pretext to meet up my college buddies - of course, mostly from the class of 93.

That said, I also had a torrid time at college, with professors, pungas, and sundry. So, I was somewhat ambivalent about partaking in a cross-batch, semi-officious event, where it appeared people were up to some serious sh#$ - the agenda had cyber security, innovation, and immigration law!

So, on a brilliantly pleasant Saturday, fighting against a part of myself , I reluctantly arrived at the Sheraton in Parsippany, NJ, halfway through the keynote session on cyber security, with the singular objective of recouping my convention fee and show my wife, I meant business.

As I entered the hall, a gregarious bunch of people walked up to me, introduced themselves, got me registered, and handed me a gym bag with goodies. Nice touch, I thought. OK, maybe fifty dollars worth; $300 more...I calculated in my nimble mind.

I looked around for familiar people. I found none. The room was filled with a cornucopia of faces - young, old, bright, intelligent, actualized, smiling...all from my alma mater. How cool is that, I thought. My thrifty mind wasn't that amused. $10 worth said.

During a break, I met the only other person from the class of 1993 that attended - Ranjit. We gave each other an understanding nod that only NIT classmates could comprehend, and clicked a couple of photographs by the NITROAA banner. The other batches that had shown up in good numbers laughed at the precarious sight of the 1993 twosome clicking away. I was fine with their triumphalism; after all NITR alumni still congregate by their class and they had the numbers. Net-net, a vasool of $25.

I reluctantly sat at the designated table and indulged in some half-hearted "brainstorming" (the others were serious) on "how to contribute to our alma mater".

As we were debriefing, I saw the first familiar face - Krishna, as he nearly uttered the four-letter word to make a point! The bugger had not lost any of his spunk since college, I thought. I didn't reintroduce myself or remind him that he was one of the first people to rag me - with his classmate KR Suresh - and had made a spurious signature as my local guardian (LG), once! I will give a hundred dollars for that moment of nostalgia, I thought, in a fit of magnanimity. $165 more...

Then on the far corner, I noticed Palash, preceded by his infectious chuckle. I didn't remember it from college, but by end of day, I had gotten so used to his laughter! I affixed a value of $50 for that...

There were more faces and names that I recognized...Sandip Das Verma...the vibrant contributor on the whatsapp group...Sachi, whom I had heard about from another friend...Vikas Mehra, whom I remember playing TT with...Ashutosh, who used to frequent my Hostel 3 room to meet his UP (and Bengali) brethren.

As I got introduced to other people, I was ushered into a secret antechamber - I am pretty sure it was secret and sound proof, for if the noise had escaped, the NJ cops would have been reading us our Miranda rights. We spent a good two hours there, drinking, chatting, laughing, relating old stories, throwing each other under the bus before the spouses, good-naturedly...

It was fantastic! This was quality Rengcolian time...with Ashutosh, Vikas, Anuj, Palash, Bakshi, Siti, Ranjit, Moushumi, Seema, and a few others. I was suddenly at ease with people that I was meeting after twenty five years; and some that I had never met in my life..See, that's what NITR does to you. I have been on this quest for the last twenty four years, and I can't find that bonhomie and brotherhood in the company of any other group - colleagues, neighbors, relatives, and such. What is it about NITR? I will continue to be bewildered by that question.
I will give a hundred dollars...wait a minute, I thought. OK, I shall stop counting the dollars from this moment on...I was well past paisa vasool phase, and this was getting into MasterCard "priceless" territory.

We went back downstairs to the kids' talent show, and now I recognized more faces.

Nihar!! The stylish cul sec, when I was in first year. One of the first names that we had to cram up along with that of the Princy's. He accosted us in a pink shirt, a light-blue, dinner jacket (which only he could have carried off), sun glasses decked atop his well-kempt hair, and a swagger that had aged like French wine!! Ladies and gentlemen of the union, the style and panache remains intact!
My mind raced back to the first time I had seen him - possibly when he sang "rim jhim gire sawan" during a Rotaract event. I knew I was not counting anymore, but I thought I will give a million dollars for that!

Then there was Joydeep...the stud guitarist and the original rock star from RECR! Eons ago, when I was debuting on stage in NITR (or anywhere for that matter), Joydeep was visiting, and had attended the rehearsal. When I started singing, he had nodded in approval, sitting in the first row with my pal, Barua, and that had set off my fledgling singing career in college (relax, it didn't go anywhere, but hey, I have a Smule account).

There was Rahul Roy...the Sanju baba of REC! Back then, he could have definitely switched for the other Rahul Roy from Aashiqui; and looking at him now, he would have done just fine in Aashiqui 2 as well!

It struck me much later that the guy who was on the panel was THE Ishpreet! His reputation clearly preceded him at college, mostly from the "orientation" that he gave the freshmen of that era ;-)! It was good to see that he was doing very well for himself.

The early batches, who had come in with their families, were full of life, and taught us how we could give back as well. The young, bright chaps, brought the energy and the ideas. This was such a perfect setting!

The personal call of duty beckoned me and I had to leave early, with much reluctance. Things had just started to heat up, as Nihar, Joydeep, and others took center stage.

As I was driving back home, the laughter of Palash and Bakshi ringing in my ears, the energy of the event still enthralling me, Nihar's and Joydeep's music resonating in my heart, I wondered where this will lead us. Actually, does it really have to lead us anywhere? Does philanthropy and altruism have to be the only purpose of this organization? Maybe it does. But, when I pivoted back to the topic of our "brainstorming", on what it takes for people to give back to the alma mater; for me, the #1 prerequisite for that had to be that we like hanging out with each other.

Based on my half day with the NITROAAns, this gang of ex-Rourkelans, absolutely meet that criteria.

It is this energy that I want to take back to my classmates and tell them why they all need to be part of it.

I hope that the 1993 batch will be well represented next year...and no one will laugh at us! I, for one, will definitely not be counting my dollars for an experience that will be priceless. My wife will just have to learn to accept that;-)!

The Man behind it all!!!


"Look! The wife and the courtesan are important, but never forget your first crush!" Ajith (name changed) once stated, to underscore his choice of chai shops! He was just eighteen, but his philosophies were that of a fully-ripened grihastha, with rich (well, let's just say plentiful) allusions to women - especially courtesans and "jaaris" (his pejorative for women).

The "first crush" he was referring to was Keshtu, the tea vendor, the sole proprietor of the eponymously named chai shop, strategically located across from Hostel 1 and adjacent to the chemical engineering department.

(In the public interest of academic completeness, the "wife" was the college canteen, and the "courtesan" was Back Post).

Legend had it that Keshtu was antecedent to even the college and Back Post. For over four decades, he had survived intense competition and ran his operations with the efficiency of a munshi and the frugality of a bania.

His dingy chai shop sold chai and singada, the taste of which I cannot quite get out of my system, even today. It was that bad! But as if to pay off karmic debt from a previous life, we consumed the aqueous chai and the fetid singada every day.

Whether it was after a bout of basketball, or a difficult viva-voce session, or the rare relic called a campus interview, we washed down our vows with the watery mixture served in cheap glass tumblers, cleaned in a dirty vessel of slop.

Keshtu, with able assistance from "Butru", served his customers with solemnity, and was frequently rebuked for providing such horrible fare. The sport that he was, Keshtu took all that in his grotesque stride, slept peaceably at night, got up at dawn with resolve, and prepared the same concoction as he had done the previous day. To those that needed it, Keshtu offered the reassurance that things in the world would never change.

In summer, the industrious man that he was, Keshtu would shift to the Neem tree adjacent to the basketball court and serve sweet Lassi, which he garnished with cherries, and Bournvita. Even his biggest detractors had to accept that during the summer months when the mercury touched forty eight degrees Celsius, Keshtu’s delectable Lassi cooled their bodies and souls.

Tell me about your experiences at Keshtu or your own favorite "bunk" shop.

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