Thursday, December 8, 2011

A Day in the Life of Carnegie Mellon

My friend, Aash, requested I write about some moments from undergrad because going to CMU, in itself, is an experience that begs to be blogged. So here goes...
There are two kinds of people at CMU: the geniuses who truly belong there and then…there's the rest of us. Similarly, there are two kinds of classes: the easy A courses like “Engineering and Public Policy”, or “Science, Technology and Ethics” that students clamored to get into in the false hopes that it would offset their Fs in other courses. Then there were the rape-your-ass engineering courses that would keep you awake for 57 hours straight, and starve you for 14 hours before your unshowered, tired body pushed you to the only place that would be open at 3 am and stuff greasy French fries down your throat, only to have you vomit it out an hour later at the nearest bathroom.
A 2nd year Mathematics course was, surprisingly, an easy-A course. The professor couldn’t be bothered with the undergrads so he would use the same tests, with the exact same questions every year, for the last 5 years. We would memorize patterns of answers, like “AABCDBBDBACBBADDDC”, from our practice tests and hope those questions came on the test, which it always did. The hardest part of the exam was to not be the first one to submit the test. In an auditorium of 250 students, when you’re taking a final exam that’s five pages long, it would raise a few eyebrows to hand the paper in under two minutes. So you ended up looking up and scanning the crowd, and notice the others also scanning the crowd, because most of us were done taking the exam, but nobody wanted to be the first one to hand it in.
Then there were the rest of our engineering courses that fell under the ass-rape category. 211 was one such course. The “Fundamentals of Data Structures and Algorithms” had nothing fundamental about it. Of the people I know who took that final exam, not a single one of us have forgotten that experience. For these courses, you spent months studying and attempting to understand concepts like data abstraction or modular program composition. But it never helped. No matter how much you studied, it never fucking helped. When you received the test paper, you’d scan the questions and every single one would look like a foreign language. Accompanying the realization that you don’t speak this language, is a sickening, sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach; time slows down and your entire life flashes in front of you, including the future where you foresee being kicked out of college and your home. And after wasting 60 minutes out of the 80 minutes just staring at your paper, you start writing furiously, forcing your elementary understanding of math, physics, logic, and language to come together to form some coherent response that will perhaps get half credit and maybe even result in a decent score after the curve. You maddeningly hope that all your friends fail. You want those fuckers to fail so the test is curved up!
After the 211 exam, five of us walked out like we would in a funeral procession and sat down on the snow-laden lawn. It was dark and easily 0 degrees and one of my friends started sobbing. I touched her shoulders and said it was going to be okay only to realize she was laughing hysterically. “Dude, I bombed that shit,” she said. “I’ve never failed anything so fucking spectacularly in my entire life.”
I burst out laughing and the rest of us joined in and there we were, lying on a foot of snow, laughing with tears in our eyes. It was either that or go hang ourselves.  So we laughed, astonished at our resolves to continue living normally, instead of ripping our hair out, stripping our clothes off, yelling expletives and running our naked asses straight into an asylum.
One of my favorite professors (and I’m deliberately not mentioning his name for the sake of privacy) was a sweet-natured, French man who students loved to take advantage of to get an easy A. Rumor had it that if you went to his office hours and had a few conversations with him, you were guaranteed a B. If he remembered your name, you were guaranteed an A.
My friend Aash and I decided to try our luck and went to his office.
“Hi professor,” I said, “Here are our thesis papers, but we wanted to drop it off in person because myself, Shilpi, and over there, Aashni, wanted to chat with you for a few minutes!”
“Oh really?” he asked in a thick, French accent, “Vot eez it that I can help you weet?”
“Oh well,” Aash replied, “we just wanted to say hi really and wish you happy holidays!”
He looked at us skeptically and replied, “Vel, eez a good theeng you girls are here…I am very perplexed by sum sing and vonted khonfermation on eet.”
“Oh shit,” I thought as we sat down and furiously started recalling what we had learnt in the past year.

Then the professor opened his cabinet, took out a small figurine and placed it on his desk.
All three of us quietly stared at a Lingam, a symbol of worship in India and of Shiva’s male creative energy.
“Ees it true,” began the professor, “of vot they say? Ees it really…a…?”
I saw Aash quietly look at the professor. “Um…” she began, “What have you heard?”
“Well,” the professor blushed, “I’m too embarrassed to say, really…”
“Preposterous!” I heard myself say, already offended about whatever nonsense he may have heard. “That,” I yelled, “is a symbol of worship in India and Hindus around the world pray to it! It is a symbol of destruction.”
“Shut up Shilpi,” Aash cut in. “Professor, I think what you heard is…true. It is, indeed, what they say it is.”
“What the hell—“ I began, but stopped as the professor nodded his head and shuffled us out of his office.
Outside, I turned on Aash. “Dude,” I said, “What was that all about? Why did he show us a damn lingam?”
Aash looked at me and was like “Dude…you don’t know what it is, do you?
“Of course I do! It’s the symbol of dest—“
“Shut the hell up about destruction. It’s Shiva’s dick, okay.”
“…Wha -at?”
“The lingam is Shiva’s di—”
“Why the HELL would we worship that?”
“Beats me. Dude, how did you not know this?”
“It’s not exactly something my mom can tell me,” I yelled. “Btw, Shilpi…that thing that you’re praying to…it’s a penis”.
“Yeah, well you learn this in school, you idiot. Not at home.”
“What the fuck…this is horrible. Hinduism sucks.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Chapter 1 - Dad and the Lady in the Rain

A lot of people have requested a blog post on my dad, or 'baba' as I call him. Here's one to start of with:

I observe my dad at work; at home; and with his friends—his life is full of light humor that frustrates the people who live with him, but amuses everyone else around him. I would describe my dad as a socially lovable, perpetually confused, workaholic. An odd combination I know, but you will understand if you read on.

I remember once we were returning from my friend’s, home that was maybe a ten minute drive from mine, and we got lost. He took a wrong turn and we ended up in a strange neighborhood that dad insisted was the correct way to go home. After a few loops in the neighborhood, realization dawned on him: this was not the correct way. “Don’t worry,” he said, “We’ll ask for directions.”

It was hurricane season, and that night it rained like any stormy night during a scary movie. He spotted a person slowly walking a dog. In this weather?! I thought. My dad drove up to him screaming “Sir! Sir!” at the top of his lungs, trying to get his attention. The lady walking the dog wasn’t too pleased at being called 'Sir'. She replied “Yes?” with venom dripping down her mouth. My dad stared straight into her eyes and said, “Sir, can you tell me how to get to Cranberry road?” The lady paused looking a bit startled, but then started giving directions. With that, my dad said, “Thank you so much, sir”, waved goodbye to the lady and drove away.
I looked at my dad then and said, “You know, she was a woman, right?”
“Yes I know,” he replied. I didn’t ask him to elaborate. We drove the rest of the way home quietly.

            My dad is like that. Once he makes up his mind about something, nothing can change it.
Once, dad tried to book a one-week cruise for us. He called the travel agent and asked what cruises go to the Caribbean. The travel agent listed ten cruises ending with Norwegian, Princess, and Carnival.
“Ah yes,” said my dad, “I want the last one; Liberty cruises.”
The travel agent said, “You mean Carnival?”
Dad: “Yes, that is what I mean. So what does the Liberty cruise have other than pool and spa?”
“Um,” the agent began unsurely, “Carnival cruises,” he said emphasizing the word, “has several things to offer.” He then listed the amenities.
My dad: “Excellent. We’ll go for Liberty travels!”
“Sir, it’s Carnival, not Liberty,” said the agent as politely as he could.
Dad: “Excellent!”
A small pause, and then the agent started again, “Alright, well how many passengers?”
“Three,” replied my dad.
“Two adults and one child?” the agent inquired.
“…Yes, two adults and one very small child,” replied my dad.
“How old is your child?” asked the travel agent.
Dad: “21”
That was the end of the conversation. A long pause. A little static. And then, for the first time in the history of customer salesmanship, a travel agent hangs up on the customer.
            Like I said: once dad makes up his mind, you cannot budge him: just as it didnt matter to him that the 'sir' in the rain was a lady, it didn’t matter that the actual name of the cruise was Carnival; dad had already decided that he wanted to go on Liberty travels with his wife and his very small, 21 year old daughter.