Banner by Rituparna Chatterjee, a woman with the potential to make it big. It's not that she can't: she just won't.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Life After ISI Is Working on Independent and Identically Distributed Projects

This is a cross-post of a an article published in Taarpor, ISIAA's annual magazine, journal or equivalent. Srinivas-da had suggested Life After ISI as the topic. The entire book is available here. There are some pieces that are quite outstanding.

***

On our ISI farewell night I was taking a stroll around the pond with one of my closest friends. Both of us knew that this was the end of our academic life. While no more studying meant a respite of some sort, I mused that this was a one-way traffic - once gone, this was gone forever.

No, the thought of a PhD had not crossed my mind on a serious note when I did my Master's. I mean, all around me I had seen classmates discussing acronyms like GRE and TOEFL that sounded impressive and imposing at the same time, but with two jobs from the campus, I knew what I was going to do. I seemed so sure of myself. So sure.

Sigh.

My job was based out of; you've guessed it correctly, Kolkata. Given a choice between a hefty salary and a chance to work from my hometown, choosing the latter seemed to be a no-brainer. Of course, people tried to convince me with mysterious-sounding eerie words like "career" and "future", but given the fact that I had spent twenty-three years in the most addictive of cities that ever existed, they weren't sufficient to lure me out of my birthplace.

So there I was one day, hunched in front of a desktop with an absurdly big monitor, a 256 MB RAM and a 20 GB hard disk (no, the figures are absolutely correct - there is no typo involved there). Strange words like "analytics" were introduced to me in due course of time, I was given a box of suave-looking business cards, I read jokes and cute-looking motivational PPTs forwarded by friends, and then, at the end of the month, something rather strange happened.

I got paid.

Studying at ISI had made me used to stipends, so getting paid at the end of the month wasn't new to me. What was new, though, was a pay cheque with the words Abhishek Mukherjee hand-written rather neatly across it. It was an amount worth many, many stipends (yes, I know it wasn't a lot compared to the first salary of some of my peers), and it somehow elevated me to the status of my parents, both of whom have been receiving similar-looking cheques for years.

It was a bizarre feeling. Till then I was under the impression that salaries were meant for grown-ups. By that definition, now I qualified as a full-fledged grown-up. You know the sort; people who carry serious expressions on their faces, wear formals, have their own money to spend (read squander) and even get married.

***

Things began to change. Or rather, things refused to change. Independently and identically distributed analytics projects came my way; projects that were responded to by writing independently and identically distributed SAS codes; and it became increasingly difficult to distinguish one day from the other.

Sure, the cheques kept coming in, but life started to get mundane. You could bunk classes – but bunking work was a different scenario altogether. Nobody cared a fig if you failed in your examinations, but people actually seemed to be rather bothered about whether their Market Basket Analysis did not reach well ahead of their quarterly sales meetings. I was rather taken aback that people would assign so much importance to the work done by me – I mean, since when did I begin to get important? A serious case of overestimation if there was one.

All this meant that I had to work late nights, and often entire nights. A fever was not a good enough reason to stay away from work anymore, and phrases like “social life” turned less and less meaningful. One actually had to work when India was playing Australia, hitting frequent Alt-Tabs for the Cricinfo window while creating a logistic regression model for customers for some obscure client located two oceans apart.

***

A team started to form under me. Leading was a rather strange scenario – people actually looked up to me for instructions and inspiration. The very thought intimidated me; I mean, what kind of people are actually willing to be led by me? But they actually did, young bright minds with “oh-he’s-from-ISI” and “oh-he’s-so-senior” and the rather erroneous “oh-he’s-so-knowledgeable” looks – making me more uncomfortable than content with myself.

The other things that happened were trips to the United States. Now this was something fairly important; if not to me then to my relatives. It came to me as a shock that almost no place in the great country resembles New York City (where you can call a taxi at random hours) or The Wild West (where you can, I suppose, call a horse at equally random hours), and for a while I felt seriously cheated by Hollywood.

What kept intriguing me was the fact that people kept considering my work as important, not only back in my office but even the clients. I mean, designing data warehouses, writing SAS codes, leading teams, getting work done and handling multiple projects were fine, but were they really that important to the world? I wasn’t really doing something path-breaking – I was simply analyzing data that existed; using methods that were already in place. Was I really doing anything substantial in life? Where did all the big talk about doing something really significant in life vanish?

I took time to discuss with my peers: people were beginning to finish their PhDs all around me, and were getting recruited as lecturers in non-trivial universities in all sorts of places. Some others were comfortably placed in careers identical (read superior) to mine. All around me people seemed to be quite content with what they had made out of life. I was also supposed to be happy, I presumed. And so I was.

***

And so, several more years down the lane, here I am, doing virtually a superior version of what I had been doing a dozen years back. The responsibilities are greater, the salary is, well, okay (o employer, please consider this as a subtle hint), but it’s essentially the same stuff. I can now safely be classified by placement agencies as another 12-year-old-analytics-guy-with-ISI-background.

Am I happy? What is happiness, by the way? I suppose, as Auden had remarked once, had I not been happy, had anything been wrong, the world would certainly have heard.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Yet Another Towel Day

It's that time of the year again, mate. A lot has passed over my life, the Universe and everything meanwhile. A lot. Things so complicated that cannot be solved using only potatoes.

Of course - we have learnt not to panic - even while making our own lives miserable for small green bits of paper that aren't really unhappy themselves.

These days we do not think that digital watches are a pretty neat idea. But then, we still retain the essence by thinking that birds crashing on pigs for hours at a stretch is neat.

Hitch-hike a lot, wherever you are, mate. Be sure to visit Sago Mud Salad. And maybe give the Kilimanjaro a shot as well. Order something really non-trivial at the Restaurant You-Know-Where.

Have fun. Happy atheism. You rock. 101010.

Image courtesy: Gizmodo

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Resemblance Entirely Coincidental (Influenced)

Disclaimer: This post is terribly and shamelessly influenced by Diptakirti's post of the same name. You see, I was totally moved by this immense work of fiction, and felt like producing something of a similar kind. Why, I didn't even bother to change the title!

***

Long, long ago, when the Universe was, say, a lot of years younger, there was, you know, a very renowned educational institution. This institution, despite being somewhat consistent in their course structure, offered a choice to the final year students: they could take their own specialisation, or in other words, follow their own hearts as far as the options allowed them to.

Since the subject was Statistics, following the heart didn't leave one with much options. The coolest (and easiest) seemed to be Statistical Quality Control, that mysterious domain of statistics which budding statisticians have looked upon with a skeptic view over ages.

SQC, with its own unique course structure, had several remarkably unusual subjects to offer. By some bizarre twist of fate, one of the compulsory ones turned out to be Basic Engineering (there was also a Basic Engineering II in the next semester, but that was entirely optional).

Throughout the course, the SQC brethren never ever took a feeble attempt to look serious about this rather unusual of subjects. I mean, after spending four years in the pursuit of Lebesgue Measure, Bolzano–Weierstrass Theorem, Kolmogorov-Smirnov Test and Chebyshev's Inequality, surely the final year was not supposed to be spent going to workshops to learn metallurgy and read copious amounts of, well, inorganic chemistry?

The seven SQC people had a summit meeting a week before the final examination, and Subhasish (abbreviated to Subbu by his mates; shall also be subsequently referred to by the same name) conjured up the courage to ask the Professor about suggestions, which was basically one word for "Sir, what questions should we expect in the final examination?"

The Professor smiled. And then, with an unexpected good-humoured air, turned his back to the budding statisticians and started writing down the questions on the ancient black greenboard.

***

Two days later, the SQC brethren assembled once again, in Sanjeev's (or was it Jatin's?) room. The rather innocuous huddle was inevitable: despite the facts that they knew all the questions, had all the answers ready in their notes, no one was prepared to give up valuable time from their last year of academic life to "mug up" notes on metallurgy or inorganic chemistry.

The discussion went on for hours. And finally, a consensus was reached.

Subbu and Sanjeev were the most daring of the lot. They went to The Dean's office, looking for random stuff. They knew the right hours. They also knew the correct cupboards. The other five stayed in vigilance, ready to alert the duo in the case of danger of the minimum order.

The Institute had a curious practice. To save time, the answer sheets to be handed out during the examination were signed in advance by the invigilator. What the duo had managed to acquire was a bunch of these.

The rest, as the believers say, was history. The answer sheets were distributed. Each valiant SQC warrior went to their rooms with one, and immersed themselves into the rather demanding task of meticulously copying out the answers to twelve questions. They probably even missed afternoon tea at Rafi-da's, such was their dedication, though they did turn up for Friday night TB-6 at the hostel lounge. People like Chitra even asked for two answer sheets (he had copied them wrong on first attempt), but the team had surplus of everything.

***

Fast-forward to the big day now. Seven hard-working students made their way to the examination hall. They  were all carrying bags, a rather unusual spectacle for examination candidates in the institution (where everyone went with a couple of pens). They were also equipped with (horror, horror) T-squares (making the entire hostel gape in awe) - this was an engineering paper, you see? It required them to draw as well.

The tables were equipped with drawing boards. The already populated answer sheets slid quite comfortably underneath the boards. The empty bags lay at the feet of the warriors as the pens came out to write gibberish on the answer sheets provided to them.

There was a collective, audible sigh in the room as the question papers were handed out. The questions were a 100% match.

Soon, all of them asked for extra sheets: they need to draw after all. The heads stooped over the drawing boards, and very, very accurate, prolonged geometrical artwork was produced on paper.

One hour left. More extra sheets asked for. This time for writing. If only the invigilator left once - the answer sheets would be swapped, and the examination sealed.

Forty-five minutes. Slowly, slowly, very slowly panic started to set in, What if the question papers could not be swapped?

Thirty minutes. Time had come for drastic action. Someone had to act. Abhijit and Tomar looked at each other. Tomar acted.

"Sir, I have a severe headache, can I have some coffee?"

Taken slightly aback, the invigilator said "No, you cannot leave the room without submitting your answer sheets."

Abhijit backed up: "Sir, can we at least have the coffee over here?"

Luigi seconded: "Please, Sir...?"

Of course, the other four added to the chorus. This was definitely a first for the invigilator.

"Okay, give me a minute," he uttered as left the room. After about a minute or so, he came back with a totally redundant bit of information: "sorry, all you can have is tea - I've asked them to bring it here."

The fourteen hands in the room had, of course, been through the most action-packed one minute of their lives. There was a lot of work to be done: the "ready" answer sheets were to be swapped with the "useless" ones, which had to be duly stuffed in their bags.

***

All seven students passed the exam (curiously, with different marks), and made it through the course. All of them got nice jobs from campus interviews, and have jobs of varying levels of decency at this point of time. None of them is doing too badly as far as a career is concerned.

Of course, there is the usual disclaimer, copy-pasted from Diptakirti's story:

This is a work of fiction.
All characters are fictional. All the described events are figments of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Two meaty capital stories

Living in Delhi, as everyone would agree, is always a capital experience (hyuk hyuk). Living inside the rather innocuous ISI Delhi campus in the rather unheard-of Katwaria Sarai, though, did put things in a different perspective altogether.
                                                                                                                                                                                       
The mess cooks kept on conjuring one bland, healthy, taste-deprived meal after another: meals that depended largely on pneer (in Delhi, there’s no a between the p and the n), rajma, chhola-batora, potatoes, carrots, egg bhurjees and a brown, semi-thick gravy of chicken that got boring on the second day. There was also the occasional mutton, which resided in gravy that resembled the chicken one in thickness, colour, texture, smell and taste.

All this meant that we looked outside for food that had taste as one of its necessary parameters. They also had to come at a reasonable rate, since we had to save chunks of our stipends for Poorva Express tickets and bottles of White Mischief.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University was a favourite hunting ground for us. It was nearby (by Delhi standards), had a substantial count of females (by ISI standards) to ogle at, and the canteens offered a large number of non-vegetarian food options (by any standards), and at a staggeringly low price (even by Kolkata standards).

As the leaves on the gulmohars on Shaheed Jeet Singh Sansanwal Marg turned a gorgeous golden-orange in November, an interesting bit of information came our way. One of the JNU canteens had actually started to sell lamb.

Lamb.

Now, this might not seem to be a big deal in 2012. But in 1998, lamb was virtually as rare as a soft porn movie living upto the expectations of adolescent males. We just had to go for it.

It wasn’t that I had not had lamb before. But after months of monotone provided by the brown gravy (the only variety coming on the days when the chicken got slightly burnt), it seemed heaven.

Of course, as with everything, volunteers popped up out of nowhere. They promised us they would be kind enough to travel to JNU (the winter chill meant the girls would be clad less scantily) and bring back lamb for all of us. We coughed up cash for the noble purpose, got hard looks from our strictly vegetarian peers, and sent them off.

Lamb arrived. As the small oblong foil boxes with white cardboard covers revealed themselves to us, we could hardly hold ourselves back from pouncing on them.

The boxes opened. The brown pieces looked delicious, and about ten or so rotis per person later, the hungrily licked clean boxes were all that remained. Then began the analysis.

Now, there were four kinds of people that took part in the meal.
  1. First-generation meat-eaters, generally classified as meat-eating philistines with no care for values and the lot. These people were mighty satisfied.
  2. Mid-level meat-eaters, having never tasted lamb or mutton before. These people seemed satisfied as well.
  3. Upper mid-level meat-eaters, having never tasted lamb before, but having tasted mutton. These people seemed content, but not without groans on the lines of "I expected it to be something similar to mutton".
  4. Seasoned meat-eaters, having been brought up on mutton and having tasted lamb, pork and beef multiple times before. This contained me. This group, sure of the fact that the meat wasn't mutton, lamb, pork or beef and having realized that neither the bone-structure nor the texture of meat resembled a bird’s, got into a long, convoluted conversation regarding which quadrupeds were most likely to be found in a large campus of a metropolitan city.

***

Beef was rare in 1998-99. More importantly, it was available in most Indian cities in a region-specific layout that depended largely on religion. The Uttar Pradesh-born mess cooks would never have consented to cook beef; which implied that we needed to obtain it on our own.

We got to know that there was a small joint in Munirka that sold beef kababs. This time I decided to take no risks, convinced a friend, and volunteered to be the scout myself.

We reached the shop; we had a couple of kababs; it was beef all right. We went ahead and placed an incredible order, something of the magnitude of three hundred kababs. Of course, we had to wait.

We paid in advance. He asked us to take a stroll and come back after, say, an hour. He proceeded to write us a receipt. At this point of time, he asked my name.

I don't blame him for taking an educated guess at my religion after I, having ordered 300 kababs, definitely qualified as his Customer of the Day.

That remains the only time that my name got written down as अभी शेख.

Friday, May 4, 2012

কদলীবালাকে দেখতে গিয়ে...

ডাউনলোড করে দেখেছিলাম। এইর'ম বাংলা সিনেমা হয়? সত্যিই? এত নির্ভেজাল হাসি, এত নিখুঁত চরিত্রায়ন, জায়গায় জায়গায় ছড়িয়েছিটিয়ে সূক্ষ্ম রসবোধ (অথচ কোথাও সেগুলো বেমানান্‌ নয়), সাধারণ বাঙালির মননশীলতার প্রত্যেকটা দিকের এত সুন্দর চিত্রায়ন?

কে নেই?

রায়বাহাদুর-প্রত্যাশী জমিদার থেকে ফ্লপ ব্যান্ডগায়ক, বিদগ্ধ (অথচ র‍্যামসে ব্রাদার্সের ভক্ত) নকশাল থেকে মোগলাই রাঁধুনী - চৌধুরী প্যালেসে সবার শান্তিপূর্ণ সহাবস্থান। সবাই নিজের স্বাতন্ত্র্যে উজ্জ্বল - অথচ টুকটাক ঝগড়া ছাড়া কোনো বিরোধিতা নেই। আর সর্বোপরি সবাই ভীষণভাবে বাঙালি, আর ভীষণ ভীষণ চেনা। এমনকি ক্লিশেড জর্জ বেকারের সাহেব, যে সিনেমার যেকোনো সাহেবের মতই সাধুভাষায় কথা বলে আর (কোনো এক অজ্ঞাত কারণে) দন্ত্যবর্ণের উচ্চারণ সম্বন্ধে সম্পূর্ণ অজ্ঞ (যদিও ইংরেজিতে দিব্যি ত্‌ থ্‌ দ্‌ ধ্‌ উচ্চারণ করতে পারে) - সেও যেন ছোটবেলার নানান্‌ গল্পের বইয়ের পাতা জুড়ে ছিল।

অপরাধী? তাও আছে। বাংলার ডাকাত, পাড়ার মস্তান, কন্ট্র্যাক্ট কিলার, লোভী প্রোমোটার: কোনো বাঙালি প্রোটোটাইপ বাকি নেই। আর আবার, কেউ বেমানান নয়। কেউ নয়। সবাই মিলেমিশে একাকার। অদ্ভুত সাবলীল সবার অস্তিত্ব।

আর তেমনি সংলাপ। আর তেমনি গানের কথা। জমজমাট চিত্রনাট্য, কোথাও কোনো ফাঁক নেই। কোথাও অর্থহীন নির্মল হাসি, কোথাও ভাষার দক্ষ ব্যবহার - আবার তার ফাঁকেই বারবার প্রচ্ছন্ন রাজনৈতিক ইঙ্গিত।

বড় স্ক্রিনে দেখার জন্য অদ্ভুত ডেস্পরেশন জেগে উঠল।

হঠাৎ একদিন খবর এল, পাওপুরীতে মুক্তি পাবে। দৌড়লাম। ৫-৪৫, ইনফিনিট আইনক্স। হাউসফুল? কুছ পরোয়া নহিঁ, আবার দৌড়। ৭-১৫, ইনর্বিট ফেম। সেখানেও প্রায় হাউসফুল, একদম সামনের দিকের টিকিট।

আর তারপর - শাড়ি, পাঞ্জাবিতে ভরে উঠল প্রেক্ষাগৃহ। অতঃপর - শুরু হল। দৃশ্যে দৃশ্যে হাসি, হাততালি। পঞ্চাশোর্ধ প্রৌঢ় থেকে ছট্‌ফটে টিনএজার - সবাই হাসতে হাসতে গড়িয়ে পড়ছে। হবেনা কেন? সবাই বাঙালি যে! বলিউডসমৃদ্ধ শহরে উজ্জ্বল দ্বীপ হয়ে জেগে রইল দু'ঘণ্টার ফেম। চারপাশে বাংলাবঞ্চিত মূর্খ অবাঙালি জনতার সীমিত বুদ্ধিমত্তার ভাষার ধরাছোঁয়ার বাইরে আমরা সবাই দু'ঘণ্টার জন্য, আমরা, শ'খানেক পরস্পর-অপরিচিত বাঙালির দল, মাসের পর মাস মরাঠি সাইনবোর্ড দেখে, বড়াপাও খেয়ে তিতিবিরক্ত বাঙালির দল একে অন্যের আত্মীয় হয়ে উঠলাম তার মধ্যেই।

না, অচেনা বাঙালির প্রতি এই আত্মীয়তাবোধ অনেকদিন হয়নি। আর এর কৃতিত্ব সম্পূর্ণভাবে "ভূতের ভবিষ্যৎ"-এর। এর থেকে ভাল সিনেমা হয়েছে। কিন্তু এর থেকে বাঙালি সিনেমা অনেকবছর হয়নি, অন্ততঃ গত কুড়িবছরে হয়নি।

অভিনয়ের কথা বলিনি এখনও। হাতকাটা কার্তিকের পাশে প্রায় সবাই ম্লান - যদিও ডার্পো, ভূতনাথ, আত্মারাম, গু-ছাইত, ভূতুড়িয়া, প্রমোদ (:D) প্রত্যেকেই অনবদ্য। কিন্তু - আহা - কদলীবালার মত কি আর কেউ হবে? কেউ ছিল?

মঁনঁ দেঁবঁনাঁ,
মঁনঁ দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ রেঁ
য়াঁমিঁ দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ রেঁ।


যঁদিঁ চাঁওঁ মঁনঁ নিঁতেঁ,
জেঁনেঁ রেঁখো তঁবেঁ মিঁতেঁ,
যঁদিঁ চাঁওঁ মঁনঁ নিঁতেঁ,
হঁবেঁ তাঁর মূঁল্যঁ দিঁতেঁ,
পাঁবেঁ নাঁকোঁ মোঁটেঁইঁ ফ্রীঁতেঁ
ফ্রীঁতেঁ পাঁআঁবেঁএঁনাঁআঁ -


মঁনঁ দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ রেঁ
য়াঁমিঁ দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ, দেঁবঁনাঁ রেঁ।

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