An Anecdote

Rahul Dandekar


Canteen Moments with Kapil

Dr. Ronak Dravid
Contribution to special issue on Dr. Kapil Patkar,
Journal of the Indian Physics Society


“I really hate anecdotes,” he used to say at that time. “All these people with stuff happening to them, saying the right thing at the right moment. Creating history.”

We would be sitting in the TIFR canteen, the west canteen to be precise, named so by virtue of being slightly western than the east one. He would be drinking his coffee slowly, whining on, infuriating me to no end, staring lecherously at some girl on the next table. In one way or another, the conversation was always about trying to achieve something in an environment which had everything – but inspiration. Such undercurrents were probably present in all the conversations going on around us, but they were usually turned into a half-assed joke before you become too serious for such a lighthearted social occasion and, or, too personal with your colleagues. With Kapil, though, these currents came to the surface – he was not one for your half-assed escapism. He wanted the full self-flagellating kind – the one where you cannibalised your feelings and only then had a joke about them as bitter dessert.

Which might surprise the few people reading this who haven’t read his autobiography, ‘Nobelty’, which of course takes its title from his Swedish prize. In this bravely honest account of his life (and to some, overly insulting to the scientific world which gave him everything) it becomes apparent that Kapil’s life has been a struggle between believing that nothing means anything and hoping that that can be changed. At the time of which I am speaking here, he was writing his thesis – an unfortunate time at which you unavoidably look back at your TIFR years. He was profoundly sad about the fact that nobody would bother to read his thesis, but his constant overriding effort in those days was to make it as perfect as possible. If nobody outside cares, you can only look at your inner compass for direction – and Kapil’s has never wavered.

“Whoo,” he said, looking at the queue, “there’s Malini. And Pranab behind her. Let me go and talk to Pranab for a while. Update him about the status of my thesis.” Pranab was our advisor, but I’m sure that Kapil just wanted to stare at Malini.

TIFR from our eyes seemed to be in a state of burgeoning passivity. Maybe it was just us. We seemed to us to be perpetual teenagers, never allowed to grow up. The professors called us idiots, the girls perverts. Our colleagues knew us as clowns. They believed, and led us to believe, that we were not like the world outside, sight unseen. We took their word for granted – finding out only later, with a sigh in memory of lost dignity, that the outside world was also populated by fools, clowns and perverts. But how were we, and our fair companions, to know that, being stuck in a hole where you don’t know who and what to believe but that you are the smartest and the most moral person alive?

Kapil came back soon enough. “Well, he blasted me, of course. I’ve been youtubing, 9gaging and facebooking for the past few days when I should’ve been writing the fourth chapter of my thesis. Damn him, he knows my ins and outs.

“I should’ve worked better, man. I should’ve concentrated on work. Everybody around me always seems to be working. Or carrying out the pretense. If they’re all acting, why didn’t I learn the trade so well?” He drank one more sip of his coffee, and I looked at Pranab, presently searching for a table, our table.

Drink fast, goddammit. I don’t want to tell Pranab I haven’t been working either.

PhD was just a phase – in our lives, if not the Institute’s. Kapil went on to cold, clean Europe, and found out most of his self-impressions formed over the past few years were wrong, and, in turns instructive. The world worked just as well for him as for other people, from better institutes or from worse ones, for people from the third world or from the first. Maybe it worked more perfectly for him than for a conniving bastard like me. Okay, I don’t know. Who’s to say what’s the world’s fault and what’s yours?

Meanwhile, Malini came and sat on our table. Kapil gave her a brief glance once in a while. Conversation had stalled. After a while he looked at me and whispered words of strong praise for her figure, which she must have heard because she promptly changed tables. Then Pranab came and sat with us. Kapil avoided his pointed questions about the thesis all the while, head down, eyes sulking. I sat there thinking, what a sucker. Cheer up already. Face the brunt. Do some work. Nobody really cares what quality of work, you stuck-up idiot, why should you? If it’s just one more paper, it’s one more paper on your CV as well. Get a PRL. Get a job. Get a wife and kids. All of science, indeed here as well, is nothing but self-service. Like at McDs. So get on the market.

And then later I went and apologised to Malini for my colleague’s inappropriate behaviour. I assured her that we weren’t all like that. Wink, wink. Nudge, Nudge. Right? Right? In any case, Malini never as much as looked at him again.

While it might not be quite some anecdote, it should suffice to look at the other contributions in this volume for some ‘real’ ones, although I haven’t looked at them yet. I do hope Namrata’s contribution covers the hilarious story of their honeymoon, which has been told and retold at every anniversary since (I wonder if any truth remains in it by now, but it is still a real gem). And, if I have embarrassed Kapil, I will take comfort in the fact that that nobody will care what a professor from some minor college has to say.


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