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To BEE or not to BEE

by Sharba Sen

10th March, 2009. How can I forget the day that changed the course of my life? IIT Foundation Day and I was at the Alumni office. Unwittingly, I had participated in the Silver Jubilee Reunion of my Batch of 1982 in December 2007. As a core team member, I had done everything wrong, yet the event was a stupendous success. Best attendance, best event, best fundraising, best legacy project and too many other bests despite my attempts to foul things up. My reputation as a guy who failed at spoiling things preceded me. The junior batch, with many guys who were my ragging victims, asked for an encore 25 years later. They asked me to rag them some more with some new-found wisdom about organising their reunion. Smart asses who knew how to humour me and make me believe that they were listening to me. They kept me busy the whole of 2008 by pretending that I was mentoring them. In early 2009, my one point agenda was to complete the class yearbook. Obviously, I had done something right there, because that yearbook was a non-starter. I did not try to make it fail, but it had failed. So I asked IITBAA CEO Shirish Waghulde to assign me a resource from his office. Grudgingly, he allotted newly appointed Office Manager Damayanti Bhattacharya to help me after extracting a promise that I would not frustrate her and drive her away.

So here I was, at the Alumni Centre on the Foundation Day to clap and applaud three friends and one Guru who were to receive the much-coveted Distinguished Alumni Awards. A couple of hours before the awards ceremony, I had walked into the Alumni centre to meet Damayanti whatever to implore her to help me with the yearbook. Her handshake was firm enough to crush my fingers. Vice like grip. Maybe they should have appointed her as vice-manager or vice-CEO or vice whatever.

Too many things happened after this incident. I got involved in a book project-Madhouse, and H4 HATS for our mess workers benefit. One day, I got a call from Damayanti. “Hi! Remember me? I am Damayanti from IITBAA. We met briefly, remember? I am trying to help you with your yearbook.” Even if I had forgotten her, my fingers had not. They twitched and winced and curled up defensively in a fist and moved behind my butt in self-defence. Before I could even whisper a yes or a no about whether I remembered her or not, she slipped into telemarketing. “I want to bring out an alumni magazine. You may not know that I also edit Raintree. I moonlight at Jaya’s office. Writing is my passion and I think an alumni mag would be great. What do you think?” What did I think? I told her what I thought. “I think it’s a great idea. By the way, I remember you. What’s happening to my yearbook? And why are you asking me about the magazine?” Her answer was to the point and a revelation. “I ran this idea with one of our directors…”, she continued “and he said that the idea is good. But magazines cost money. Where will you get the money from? So I was confused and asked our CEO Shirish Waghulde. Shirish told me that you should call Bakul. Only he can tell you where the money will come from.” Aha! So I was a fundraiser extraordinaire? Financing magazines for moonlighters that I knew not. I laughed. This Waghulde guy had a sense of humour.

Much more happened in my life since then. We were now working on launching HATS in all hostels. Madhouse was nearing completion. We had also hit upon a brilliant fundraising idea for IIT, called Give One. By this time, Damayanti and I had become inseparable bhidus,working on several projects together. She now had a new one point agenda. I had to contest the next election and join the Board of Directors. Why should I? What is it that I can do in the Board that I’m not doing already? What makes you think I’ll be effective in the Board? I am happy where I am and I’ll get you your magazine, so why should I contest? I asked questions that had only one answer. Join the Board and you’ll understand. If you do not, I’ll be the first one to ask you to quit.

I relented. Maybe under the lurking fear that my fingers would be crushed again if I did not comply. I contested. To my horror, I won and winced when Damayanti smiled. I was now an official, shorn off my reverse gear.

I was assigned the task of fundraising before I even knew that I had won. There was an alumni day happening in less than 3 months. Madhouse was to be launched on that day. HATS was to be launched in all hostels that same day. Give One was a concept waiting to become real and climb out of collaterals. (Confession: I now knew what a collateral was.) The event needed funds to be raised and for want of anything better, I proposed that we print a souvenir that contained ads. Damayanti felt that the souvenir should also contain articles to titillate minds into giving ads next year. Sound bania logic from a right-brained leftist Bong.

According to Bill Clinton, the world was divided into 2 types. Those who had seen the Taj Mahal and those who had not. According to me, it was divided into those who were Damayanti Bhattacharya and those who were not. But according to IITBAA Board presided by Shridhar Shukla, our small world had to be divided into those who would write content for the souvenir and those who would get the ads and money. I was both relieved and amused to find myself on the wrong side of the writing department. Here was a best-selling Madhouse, printed and published, but those who had read it decided to keep me out from writing and pushed me into the ad seeking department.

I think there lurks cross-dresser in all of us. Damayanti called to say, “I am not getting content yaar! Write something for me no!” Welcome thoughts from one to whom I confessed, “I am not getting ads. Get me something no!” I wrote and she got ads. Cross-dressing was complete, legal and official. When “we”, the revenue officials, asked “them”, the document writers, about the size of the page that could house ads, “they” had an emergency call and invited “us” to inform us that we should not print a souvenir. Damayanti wanted to print a magazine rather than a souvenir. If her wish were to ride on horse wings, we needed a name, a concept, a printer and more time. So why do “we” guys not go back to sleep and rest in peace? What I said after that cannot be repeated, but it measured 7 on the Richter scale. We didn’t sleep, we didn’t rest in either peace or piece, and we collected Rs 7.8 lakhs to a print bill of Rs 1.8 lakhs.

A 6 lakh surplus was heady enough to make us create a concept note and a collateral in the January Board meeting. Our success entitled us to print gyaan in PowerPoint slides but did not allow us to prevent management lessons coming our way from people who had learnt lessons at Harvard, but not practised in Haridwar markets.

“A magazine needs a name, a concept, editorial committee, readership and funds.” That’s what we were told. Yeah! Right! When did we say that it needs popcorn, haleem, Rubik’s cube, map of Berlin and the emperor’s new clothes?

“No, you should not charge subscriptions. Yes, you have to print copies for all 40,000 alumni and ship it free. No, you may not ask IIT press to print it free for you. No, you will not be able to raise money through ads.”

This exchange begged a question that was reluctantly asked. “How then do we raise the money and print a magazine?” The instant answer told us how stupid we were. We had to think up of an innovative solution and present in the next Board meeting in more Power and more Point. That was it. I was convinced that we were treading too much on the right path and had finally started failing. If we had to succeed with a magazine, we should unleash plans that were guaranteed to fail.

We allowed events to overtake us and control of our lives and families. MoU for the popular loan scholarship program had to be negotiated and signed. Our quest for a CEO had resulted in ShirishPotnis being identified for the job. Nashik chapter was launched. The first ever Institute Valedictory function for passing out students was planned, scripted and executed in hours. We had planned for 50 teas and there were 500 tea drinkers who showed up and almost kicked us all the way to Darjeeling to grow and brew more tea. HATS was getting laundromated in H8. An accidental discovery that IITBAA was 10 years old led to a grand plan of hosting a Decennial event.High-powered panel discussion, fundraising, Board elections, annual AGM followed. Before Damayanti could say, “I am going to sleep tonight”, we pushed her away to New York for the PAN IIT event. By the time she was back and about to take off to Korea for her holiday, we asked her to plan for the Alumni Day and another souvenir that would pay the caterer’s bills. Yet again, she set up 2 committees, the writing one and the ad-collecting one.

Before we could start our cross-dressing, I hit upon an idea that was guaranteed to fail. “Why don’t we launch your magazine now?” I asked earnestly. Her scream was hysterical. “Are you out of your mind? I am travelling to Korea in a few days. A magazine needs a name, a concept and a lot of hard work. From where will we get the articles and the money?” I was happy that I was 800 km away, safe from a finger-crushing distance. Somewhere in this journey, I had realized that Hindi worked well on hysteria. Rajesh Khanna always shut up Sharmila Tagore in Hindi in all movies in which they acted together. “Magazine abhi nahin karenge, to phir kabhi nahin hoga!”(I almost said Pushpa while twirling my fingers in counter-clockwise motion. RIP Kaka) … that was my Hindi offering for universal logic. I could see Korean plans thawing for a moment. We were close to November. GO IITB campaign had started and Diwali was about to explode in India. A magazine or whatever had to be thought up, conceptualised, discussed, edited, written, printed, funded and launched in about a month. It sounded impossible and I was pleased. In strong attempts to fail, we had always measured success and this outlandish idea was one such. “But a magazine needs a name, an idea …” I did not let her complete the sentence. “Let’s call it Fundamatics!” I said without much ceremony, as if I was naming a toothpaste. People often complain that I don’t listen and maybe I am hard of hearing. But I swear that I could hear an eyebrow being raised at this outrageous name suggestion. What was the funda behind Fundamatics? There was no time to argue and it was time to move on to the next issue. About the “concept” behind the magazine. “Let’s not conceptualise”, I suggested. “Let’s move on and let the magazine control us.” Madhouse co-author Urmilla Deshpande had once told me that when she writes her novels, she creates characters, but soon, she loses control. Characters steer the book and its outcome. Much like a new-born infant who makes the parents dance, sing, laugh and cry when he/she wants.

We worked out a protocol between us. If either of us hit upon an idea, the ideator would call the ideatoree and exchange quick notes. Answers had to be a yes or a no. At most, they could be a big yes or a big no. A call had to be answered whether one was in Korea or Kurla. I was at a construction site ducking falling debris and she was buying vegetables when we created the beehive metaphor. “I’ll be Queenbee and you be Bumblebee”, she instructed while loading potatoes in her basket. “No, I’ll be Fumblebee and you be Grumblebee”, I retorted while stumbling on a cement bag.

I boasted that I knew too many alumni authors who would fill up our pages and egos with words that gushed from a fountain. The first guys I asked replied to my request with a 1000 word questionnaire which asked why they should write 500 words for a magazine whose name they did not like and whose concept was delightfully unknown. Why should they write? Why do we want a magazine? Why did we call it Fundamatics? Why? Why?and more Why? What should I say? Why? Because the sky is so high? Your grandfather told a lie? In the month of July? In the year 1965?

I had started failing again and I was pleased. Smelt success in the air that had now moved from Mumbai to Korea. When Giddu called to say that he had met a scrooty at IIT who was mauled by a leopard and he wanted to write a photo-story about it in our class Yahoo group, I jumped, did a bhangra and asked him to write the piece for Fundamatics. From Korea, Damayanti told me that if it was the same madcap Giddu who had hit the headlines for fighting a parking fine of Rs 300 for 3 years in a court at a cost of Rs 1.5 lakh, then we should run that story as well. Fundamatics was off to a great start with a leopard and a no-parking fine. Two monsters, one canine and another tow-van-ine had set us up on a launch pad.

Sceptics abound everywhere. They know how to dissuade. They dissuaded and persuaded us to call off this madness. There was an urgent need for remedies. Maybe, if we called the “bigwigs”, they would write for us. Right! Maybe you could walk into a swank restaurant, order an oyster, open its mouth, fish out a pearl and pay the bill with that! Manohar Parrikar was about to launch his election campaign when we assaulted him with an interview request. He gave in when we figured that we would stop hounding him only if he answered questions about mess workers and his class bunking. Sudheendra Kulkarni was driving out of Tihar jail after being released on bail in the cash-for-votes scam when we asked him to answer questions in 3000 words. Gautam Barua was stirred awake from a Guwahati winter to write “anything you want” in “about 1000 words” by “day after tomorrow max”. Mashru was also woken up in California to write about Indian Aadhaar in 24 hours. He retaliated by sending in an excellent piece in 12 hours which we took 48 hours to find on our overly-cluttered mailboxes. Time was short, so we asked award winning film maker NiteshTiwary to draft both the questions and the answers for a so called interview.

Word was out. There were two madcaps on the rampage. Submit or be damned. Crisis was announced and asking for more takers. Valiant Jaya Joshi, awards growing out from her armpit, stepped in with sagely wisdom and a rescue plan. Cherubic energetic English-loving Vini came in with her specs and her love for Wren & Martin. Monty, who tried to call himself Raja Mohanty once, announced that he was “busy”, but he sent a designer named Anand Prahlad our way.

Some sent their content to Damo… Damayanti was a long name and we didn’t have the luxury of wasting time with full names. Some sent their content to me. We flooded each other’s mailboxes with what we thought was exclusive in our respective boxes. Damo sent an article to Vini for proofing. Vini proofed. I sent the same article to Vini. She proofed again. We then sent her proofed articles and believe it or not…she proofed her own proofs while mentioning that this nonsense was vaguely familiar. When Damo called to say that she was proofing Samir Kelekar’s “legal” piece, I did not know what she meant. Only when she told me that she had completed 9,000 words from the 13,000, did I realise that she had indeed picked up his legal plaint and not the concise 900 word submission from him. SanjivSood was aghast when he saw his visiting card printed in colour-earthy and green-rather than his ad which he had sent and we managed to send to Vini for proofing. As Vini would tell us often enough, she was proofing and we were goofing.

This was a script for a perfect failure and it was exciting. Photo finishes always arouse and titillate. We were working in seconds now, like the Olympian 100 meter dash runners. Damo was to send the final content to Anand on Monday. Anand was to do the final layout on Wednesday and send to printer Paresh. Paresh was to print the first copy by Friday and the rest by Saturday, just before the release. On Monday night, Damo called me, “See! I copied the content from my desktop to my pen drive. I then deleted from desktop and took the pendrive home and tried to open the contents. But it was somehow not copied in the pendrive. So, I rushed back to office and saw that content is neither on the desktop nor in the recycle bin. Do you know how to retrieve?” This time, I screamed like a banshee. She had fumbled and I grumbled. She pronounced me as “useless” who did not know how to retrieve data that she had lost. This was a miscarriage and sacrilege. I wept. Kept weeping till Friday afternoon.

Stopped when Damo called to say that Fundamatics-our baby was finally born, alive, healthy and kicking. First copy was in her hands and the gum had not dried from the seams, but here it was…in her dancing arms, on the way to Dean Ali’s office. I burst out in tears of joy. Booked my ticket to fly to Mumbai to see my baby. Much like I had done some 23 years afore to hold my daughter in my arms.

There was a minor goof-up in the contents page that we discovered after 300 copies were printed. We stopped press and changed the remaining 700 copies. Sometime on Monday, Anand had told us that our ferocious attempts to get 70 pages of content had overshot into 200 pages. Paresh told us that the 50K estimate had climbed to 200K and the cheap paper was not available. What should he do? Ideally, he should have shot both of us, the demented souls. Damo’s Monday question “paisa kahan se aayega?” was answered. A Hindi question….we were Hindi-ing away furiously now….was answered with some cheque leaves. A global bailout plan was in place. It had showered words till yesterday and was showering currency today. Fundamatics closed…and opened with 200 pages, 5.5 lacs revenue, lots of smiles and 2 saved marriages.

~~Bakul Desai