Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Balsu Chronicles II: May the force be with you

It was a triveni sangamam of sorts where all the big alphabets of the city (DAV , SBOA, PSBB - KK, PSBB - MAIN, PS etc. etc.) came to merge and join the march towards destiny. We, a small contingent from the world famous (in Nanganallur) Modern School, would quietly but defiantly and proudly occupy our small territory in the classroom. Everyone waited in the common din and buzz for genius to strike.

After 2-3 hours of intense stuffing our brains with equations, chemical structures and concepts, we'd burst out of the class into the apparent vacuum around Satyamurthy school. Catch the bus (11 or 13 to Usman Road), catch the train to St. Thomas Mount/Palavanthangal and footboard our way out of the city and into the night, without a thought in our mind (other than straining our necks and looking for the the girls waiting on platforms to board the trains in the designated ladies compartment areas). Particularly overlooking the thought about the homework we just inherited from the class - which would involve at least a day's worth of effort to even honestly attempt. And, it goes without saying, we would hardly attempt to solve those problems before the next class.

Sometimes we got off easy - like the chemistry profs, Govi and Santhanam, who would treat us like adults, and not push too hard to hold us accountable. Other professors were not so gentle. Balsu-sir and TRS (our math prof) would first enquire about who had done the homework, and follow it up with walking around the class and randomly pulling out the notebook of the students to see whose claims had some truth in it. And god save the guy who claimed to have done it and had a blank notebook (majority fell in this category). Those moments were priceless - not even a $100 million Hollywood film can match the amount of pure drama, thrill and suspense packed in those moments.

Govi's class was a pleasure to sit through. A genial faced man with thin black rimmed glasses and an open smile, he made statements about chemistry that you wouldn't forget for the rest of your life ("chemicals are not gods, so don't capitalize them unless it is the beginning of the sentence"). Laced with humor, his classes made chemistry go down like hot gulab jamun with vanilla ice cream.

Balsu-sir's classes were altogether a different ball game. Surviving his classes was one thing- surviving his wit was something else. Acerbic, quick, rich in imagery, and devastating in its destruction. I don't know how he came up with all those put-downs and comments. The best part was you could see his eyes playfully twinkle right before he was going to deliver a zinger.

Balsu-sir was teaching Projectiles, when he caught a guy who hadn't done his homework. He flipped through the notebook and saw page after page of blanks. Before the student could react, he threw the guy's hardbound 192 page notebook out of the classroom - it sailed through the doorway and landed in the corridor with a shuffle. Balsu-sir continued "if you come to class again without doing the problems, you will follow the trajectory of the notebook".

His best line was "repulsion is the sure test of magnetism" - which means that if you and your friend have arrived at the exact same wrong answer for a problem, it is highly probable that one of you copied from the other - hence, repulsion is the sure test of magnetism.

His early tests were notoriously difficult. Scores like 7 out of 25 were considered decent. And while distributing the test papers, he would accompany each paper with his blessings: "scientists all over the world are trying to achieve it (zero kelvin), but you have achieved it - zero, here…."; one particular student he suspected had copied during the test - he singled him out and said…"Shankar meet me after the class, I am going to grind you into a pulp…" (the sight of that guy sitting in terror through the rest of the class was a sight to behold).

And the man would draw force diagrams like God. He drew the best looking force diagrams I have seen. You might be thinking…what?…force diagrams? Who gives a rat's behind how they look? But, I am telling you… it was something you should have experienced to understand. The man would lecture and you couldn't take your mind or eyes off him or what he says or his chalk marks. It was like seeing a suspension bridge being erected right in front of your eyes, in half an hour.

We learned. Remembered some and forgot most. Some among us went on to go to IITs (not me). Some were crazy enough and smart enough to crack JEE and get a hundred-odd rank when suffering severe diarrhea and stomach pains on exam day. Some among us went on to do other things in science and engineering. A few of us took up other careers. And for a few of us, the force stayed with us, long after.

Balsu-sir passed away a few years ago, and a few hundred students, spread around the world, had lumps in their throats on hearing the news. Articulate, well educated men were groping for words to express themselves. Thoughts came rushing, not following any particular trajectory. That period in our lives was evoked…and no one else to better embody those days than Balsu-sir.


Anonymous said...

really good reading--the subtlety of humor and the honesty in gratitude mix well, almost effortlessly--looking forward to more of such musings!

GB said...

Not bad, Modern School. PSBB approves :D I used to go to Satyamoorthy to pick up my brother and count the number of sodabuddis emerging from the classrooms...hehe.

Visitor said...

:) Lost for words.

magesh said...

@ Anon- :)

@ GB - while counting the PSBB sodabuddis, you would have overlooked the cool modern school dudes and dudettes, blazing their way in and out of Satyamurthy school. As you know...singams, modern school singams single-a than varum....

@ Visitor - thanks for those nice words

journeyman said...

I saw your comment on my blog today, it had been a while since I visited it. I am glad that you are still remember those wonderful days at MSSS. All I can recollect about Balsu is all you guys sitting at the back bench and trying to solve his problems before he rear-ended you in the evening :) It is great to see that your tribute for him.

journeyman said...

I saw your comment on my blog today, it had been a while since I visited it. I am glad that you are still remember those wonderful days at MSSS. All I can recollect about Balsu is all you guys sitting at the back bench and trying to solve his problems before he rear-ended you in the evening :) It is great to see that your tribute for him.

magesh said...

hehe...liked the "rear-ending" comment...those were the days...written in permanent marker

Anonymous said...

Great tribute to the man!

Aamaan... adhu enna crazy enough and smart enough.... thittaradhu nna theLivaa thittanum ;-)


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Your blog brought back wonderful memories of prof balsu and his classes. It's been 18 years ago for me, and I felt a unexplainable urge to google up his name today, just like that. Really dint expect such a wonderful tribute to come up.
Thanks for the article,

Akshay said...

Hi. Nice to read this. How was professor Santhanam back then ? How were his classes? Was he very strict ?