Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Life and Times of the Cheshire Cat

(This piece was written for the Golden Jubilee of IIT Kanpur - and is about the student magazine called 'The Cheshire Cat', that we used to run when we were students. Some old issues of the Cat, created almost a generation ago, are preserved somewhere in the IIT K Alumni websites. A Google-search might get you there)

We are talking about a generation ago. When IIT Kanpur was littler and fitted in your pocket. Well, almost. Those were the times when the campus was just a sum total of a few Lecture Halls and even fewer hostels and no auditorium to speak of. When ‘computer’ used to be that big fat thing that needed an entire room for itself and worked on a deck of weirdly punched cards. The Computer Center was a citadel guarded by a battalion of sleepy security men, well past their retirement age. The SAC building and the swimming pool were just blue-prints and Cultural Festivals did not have a name and took place in a crude, apologetic ‘pandal’ which used to collapse every once in a while. Ominous looking tempos ferried us back and forth on our occasional visits to the city to lap up the greasy Chinese food dished out by some filthy, but wildly popular eateries. We led deceptively simple lives punctuated only by lectures, quizzes, sleepovers in the library and an eventual exit out of the institute with a fresh degree. And the elite among the students got either a US offer or a thousand rupees a month job. Yes, a thousand mega bucks. There was a pattern, an algorithm and predictability to our lives. And we lived on.

Until one day when some of us decided to get together over cups of chai and reflect on our young student lives. None of us in that group were poster boys of IIT Kanpur - our JEE ranks had more digits than our PIN codes and if you took the reciprocal of our JEE rank, you pretty much got our GPAs – and we barely managed to swim with the sharks and the ten pointers. We figured that we were gross misfits who could never meet the merciless expectations of the faculty or our parents. (Although the key difference was that our parents were usually in the dark about how the IIT K relative grading worked whereas the professors knew much more than they need to on the grading system) After the seventh or eighth cup of tea, it dawned on us that instead of bemoaning our marginal existence as IIT K students, we might as well ‘grin and bear’ it. And for more grins, take an inside-out, upside-down look at the whole IIT K student life – discover humor in everything IIT K-ish - all the holy cows and stuff talked about in hushed tones. We resolved that we start a student magazine just for this purpose and douse the campus with self-deprecatory humor. Call it audacity, call it sour grapes rationalization, call it escapism – or even call it overdosing on Nair’s double-density tea – the Cheshire Cat was unleashed on IIT Kanpur and it roamed the campus for quite a while. .

We were lazy and disorganized. Other than coming up with a few jokes which we found funny, we had no clue about running a campus magazine. Nobody wanted to be the editor and it turned out that we never had one for the entire period the Cat was published. (In fact, ‘Published by a few guys’ became our tag-line.) And many Cat-writers preferred to be anonymous, fearing reprisals. The Student Gymkhana refused to fund us, claiming that there were already too many student rags (which was true) and we had to cough up our own money. Since our finances were so dismal, we could afford to print only a handful of copies and thus we were forced to launch the Cat as a ‘wall paper’ that was pasted on hostel notice boards. We would secretly hang around by the notice boards to gauge the readers’ reaction – and sometimes even explain the jokes to a few un-hip students who dared to read it with a grim face. Our ranks would swell around the time of Cultural Festivals, but it got pretty lonesome in the Cat quarters after the Festival girls went home.

The production of a Cat issue itself was an interesting process. We lived in pre-historic times when photocopying technology had just been invented and Xeroxing anything cost an arm and a leg and needed the signature of every single Dean on campus. So, we had to resort to what was called ‘Cyclostyling’ where you literally sculpted a plastic-backed paper with your typewriter and made copies – where anything after the fourth copy was just a rumor. We discovered that a certain Guptaji, dwelling in a nondescript office in the Faculty Building would do this in his after-hours – for a fee, of course. So, after gathering our stories and articles, we tracked down Guptaji and spent long hours with him and his precious IBM typewriter. On days when he was in a particularly pleasant mood, he could even be coaxed into changing the ‘wheel’ of the typewriter and give us more fonts. Since everything was manually typed, typos and mistakes got etched in stone and we had to live with them. In fact, many of our best jokes died at Guptaji’s typewriter, falling victim to his brutally minimal typewriting skills. Somebody among us enrolled in a class on lino-cut lithography and made a die to stamp out our logo, which we proudly flashed on the front page. Eventually, the Gymkhana embraced us and we even got some office space in the SAC - until one day when one of the guys painted a huge picture of a frog on the walls and got us thrown out.

Then one day we decided to come up with our magnum opus – a bumper Cat issue (actually only about twenty pages thick) that was truly offset-printed and that we later sold for fifty paise a copy. We had sufficient articles to warrant it, but the economics was not working out. Even after the few hundred rupees the student Gymkhana was willing to throw in and a hefty amount we extracted from two advertising sponsors, we were still in a hole for a few thousand rupees. After a few chais, we came up with the idea to sell T-shirts with IIT K logo in the next cultural festival and funnel in the profits (or what would be left after the customary ‘treats’) into the ‘printed’ issue. We settled on a design featuring Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ sculpture, right under an ‘in your face’ emblazonment of the letters ‘IIT Kanpur’. We intimidated other potential T shirt sellers into believing that we had the best design and the Cat artist indeed did a great job of faking the original. (I should know, because years later, I did see the original ‘Thinker’ sculpture in the Rodin museum in Paris).

We scrounged around some money and two of us went over to Mumbai to buy blank T shirts. We roamed through the bowels of the city, procured our precious cargo in a seedy mill (my pocket got picked at 6.00 AM in a local train, but then, I am digressing) and somehow managed to lug them to the campus, despite grilling from our suspicious parents. A few weeks before the Cultural Festival, we got the printing done and box after box of ‘IITK Thinker’ T shirts showed up in our rooms, ready to go on sale. We signed on the Mr. Hall III as our brand ambassador, who at sixty five kilos, was a relative hulk compared to the rest of the students. We had our shirts displayed in all the food stalls around the Festival pandal – till one day when we discovered a kebab stall owner using one of our shirts to wipe his hands. All in all, we didn’t do too badly – with guys and girls clamoring for our T shirts left and right - and the ‘printed’ Cat issue eventually became a reality.

The Cat was not the only one to bring out a ‘printed issue’. Our rival magazine The Spark also did it every year. They collected old newspapers around the hostels and raised money for producing it. The Counterpoint – the semi-official student rag, with its Gymkhana funding had it slightly better and didn’t have to invent a scam to fund their special issue. Although our competition, these magazines really had some gifted writers, who had very creative minds and a way with the language. But, unfortunately, these serious literary efforts got lost in the hustle of quiz-today, exam-tomorrow kind of student lifestyle and were confined pretty much to an elite fringe of the community. I wish some of these special issues were archived for posterity. We at Cat were so low-brow that we promptly parodied these issues.

Cheshire Cat covered various subject matters and most often we would dedicate an entire issue for a single topic. But mostly, our protagonist was the hapless IIT K student and we would lampoon his misadventures. For, he lived a life of contradictions – at once being a shy, geeky top-ranker who humiliated the computer in chess, but also wanting to be a swashbuckling hero in front of the girls. We found humor in the highly un-romantic, male-heavy student demographics. We quipped at the faculty, the director and the myriad official bodies. We mocked the student elections, the student senate, the campus ‘lefties’ and just about anyone who took themselves seriously. We didn’t even spare the large packs of dogs that used to migrate to the campus from the city – apparently n search of better food. (Better food? In the IIT mess?!?!!) We were very affected by the irreverent style of the MAD magazine of the USA and by the wry, off-beat wit of Woody Allen. And yes, we made fun of the Cheshire Cat too.

After three years of run, with reality hitting us in the form of graduation, we decided to cease publication and get out. Even after we left, the Cat apparently had several new lives and showed up from time to time in the campus.

It was a generation ago, alright. Like most IIT K alumni, I too consider the years spent as an IIT Kanpur student as the most memorable slice of my life. The Cheshire Cat experience added to it. I don’t know if it honed my sense of humor any, but it certainly added a measure of introspection to my life and perhaps even a shred of humility – especially when people were trying to put us on a pedestal. Gazing into the mirror has never been the same since then.

Pass the tea, please!!


At Wednesday, March 16, 2011 8:11:00 AM, Blogger Nappinnai NC said...

Very true about relative grading & GPA:-) Easy to confuse people by injecting some relativity into it.

Why did you remove the 'class of ????'? I thought that added spice to the article. I can hear Dolphins-T crying...

At Wednesday, March 16, 2011 4:01:00 PM, Blogger Thaths said...

Ramesh, you've captured the agony and the ecstasy of college student rags beautifully. Your experiences are from about a decade (or decade and a half) ahead of mine. Copiers were more widely available in my days, but we still had to scrounge. We tried to fob off expensive advertisements ("sponsorships", we said) on the dad's of our classmates. In the dull corridors of colleges in rural Tamil Nadu we had the extra burden of a highly disinterested audience.

Reading your post made me wonder what the literary minded college kids these days are doing. I hear sponsortships from Coffee Day and Airtel is pretty routine and easy to come by (as are custom printed t-shirts not involving road trips to Bombay or Thirupur). And they probably publish the magazine on the web these days. Or on Facebook.


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