The classroom was a big hall, with the seats arranged in a semi-circle, facing three white boards, placed adjacent to each other.
The room was eerily silent, with all the students seated in their designated places, arranged alphabetically and marked out with printed name tags. Since the floor was at an incline, although my seat was on the second last bench, I noted I was fairly visible from the centre of the arc, where I figured the professor would stand.
Every place has its share of folk stories that get handed down from generation to generation, mutating themselves to unimaginable and implausible forms with every retelling. In IIMB, the legend of Rambo merited a compendium of its own. Whenever anyone from IIMB meets an alumnus, it is customary to ask, ‘So, did you attend his class?’ Thereafter, a couple of minutes are spend in uncontrollable laughter, nodding heads and slapping thighs, while both exchange versions of their ‘screwed by Rambo’ stories. Reputation could be built merely by stating ‘I was there when Rambo slayed the Lochness monster’ or ‘I was sitting right next to the guy when Rambo chopped off his balls and proved that they were in fact cuboids.’ Events could be accurately dated with ‘around the time Rambo had started chewing steel for breakfast’ or ‘the week when Rambo survived on nothing but anti-matter’. Rambo-Maps could precisely identify places with references like ‘200 meters from where Rambo first crossed the sound barrier on foot while reading Schiffman & Kanuk’. Even before one set foot on campus, these stories have a way of travelling across the length and breadth of the country and downloading themselves to the new batch of students automatically. So, when we were told that our first class would be with Rambo, the images that came to mind were that of the masculine, gun-totting, ruthless vigilante that we’d all been exposed to throughout the last 20 years. Unsettling thoughts, irreparably adulterated by the many horror stories we’d been so kindly told by our seniors, began floating around in our minds.
‘’You!’ the bare-chested professor, hands akimbo would ask me in a thick Italian accent, his right arm threateningly hovering over his stiletto holster. ‘WOT R DA 4 PISS of MARKTNG? I REPEAT. WOT R DA 4 PISS of MARKTNG?
‘Pilferage, Protection, Pillaging, Impaling,’ he would finally clarify, before sending his stiletto flying across the room to pin me to the wall.
With this as the reference, I found it difficult to convince myself that the person standing in front of us, at 8 AM sharp, was in fact the legendary Rambo. Dressed in a plain off-white shirt, gray trousers, and spectacles that seemed as thick as they were wide, Rambo seemed surprisingly non-Italian and over-dressed. Even his bullet belt, his grenades and his stilettos were missing. His weapons of choice were a much less threatening old file cover, a bunch of papers, and a set of transparencies tucked under his right arm. He was a man in his late 40s, with short, curly hair and a generous paunch that gently bulged out and hung over his waist belt. A thick moustache, shaped deceptively into a U-curve over his lips created the illusion of a smile, but took on a menacing incline towards the edges where they ended rather abruptly in two tiny bulbs.
Rambo had walked into the classroom in a ‘one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-and-eventually-you’ll be-there’ kind of unsure gait, smiling at the floor throughout. As we would come to know later, making eye-contact was tantamount to stripping in public for Rambo; he carefully guarded his modesty by always looking at the floor for most of his waking hours. In fact, rumor had it that Rambo could recognize people better from their shoes. His family album apparently looked like a shoe-catalogue, complete with close-ups of all his family members’ foot-wear.
‘Good morning class,’ he said, his feet firmly rooted in one place, while his upper torso kept moving about in a slow, elliptical orbit. ‘Welcome to Introduction to Marketing.’
After this verbose and detailed introduction, he decided to get down to business. He had been in the world of marketing, 2x2s, and presentations for too long, so much so that his speech pattern had also taken on the ‘Heading, Bullet Point, Sub-bullet Point pattern.’
‘Pre-class preparation. I expect you to come to class familiar with the relevant sections of Kotler’s book,’ he spoke to the row of feet jutting out from the bottom of the front desk. ‘Much of the book is outdated, but we’ll bring it up to speed with more relevant examples.’
A fleeting glance at a copy of the book on the front desk betrayed some personal disdain he had for its author.
‘Your contribution. Much of what you’ll learn from this class will depend on your own initiative. Unless you diligently do the pre-class work, there is not much point in coming to class.’
‘Marketing. It is not an exact science,’ he said, as he pulled out a transparency from his envelope and placed it on the projector. ‘Much of it is subjective. There is no right or wrong.’
I stared at the white transparency with the words ‘Marketing’ written in thick blue ink. What he had missed mentioning here, is that the ‘subjectivity’ fell completely under his domain, while we were expected to learn the science part, mugging up nuggets of wisdom like poetry from classical literature – complete with meter, rhyme and alliterations.
‘Time. I respect your time, and I expect you to respect mine and each others. No one comes late to class. No one ever has. You are either on time, or you are not here at all.’
Listening to him was an immensely trying experience. He seemed to be fighting to hold onto an elusive train of thought that had a mind of its own. A small nudge, the tiniest of distraction, and it would derail his entire thought process.
The class door suddenly swung open and hit the side wall with a loud thud. This was the time Karthik had chosen to walk into class. And just in case the fact that he was fifteen minutes late was not enough to prove a point, he’d arrived in his torn jeans, with no books, a newspaper tucked under one arm and a cup of coffee carefully balanced on the other. I suppose these are the kinds of moments when a sane person’s self-preservation instincts kick in, and the brain starts pumping in stimuli to the rest of the body parts, asking them to run for cover.
‘Er…guys, I’ve messed up again. Am afraid you’ll have to do your disappearing act again,’ a normal person’s brain would implore to the rest of the body.
But clearly such conversations were few and far in between within Karthik. Else he wouldn’t have just stood there besides the door and casually glanced at Rambo, shaking his head as if directing him to continue with his lecture, while he scanned the room for familiar faces. I did my best to spontaneously collapse my spinal cord at multiple places and sink into my desk to escape eye-contact. But I shouldn’t have bothered, for K2, sitting right behind me, had decided to play the light-house and guide our friend in with an friendly, excited wave. Being nature’s favorite whipping boy, I should have guessed that it was only to be expected that she would have arranged some 20 so years ago, that all four of us be born with surnames that ensured we get to sit through our MBA course together. In a few seconds Ushasis Saha, who was sitting right beside me, too joined in with a ‘Hai, Karteek.’ Suddenly, it only seemed right that I too showed some signs of life; I smiled back at Karthik Shankaran, and pointed out his seat beside Suketu Talekar with my thumb.
A long period of silence ensued as 60 pairs of eyes escorted Karthik to his seat. While it seemed weird then, I realized later that Karthik probably deliberately landed himself regularly into situations where he had the maximum eye-balls. Like an insecure lead actor, his energy was fuelled by attention from others, and he threw a tantrum every time life’s camera seemed to pan away from him. Presently though, assured that everyone’s attention was firmly fixed on him, he happily approached his seat, sat himself down, and proceeded where he had left off on page 11 about ‘India Wins last ODI, Clinches Series’, while taking occasional sips of his coffee. Almost 30 seconds passed before he realized that the classroom was unnaturally quiet. Looking up from his paper, he noticed that everyone, including Rambo, was still looking at him.
(To be continued)
Photograph Courtesy: © Hugo Chinaglia