Past, unless extremely unpleasant, usually presents a nostalgic flavor, and if it is about your student life there is nothing like it. Among reminiscences of the bygone days you may come across something unusual, something that leaves a deep impression on you. At post graduation level science students have to take up laboratory work as part of curriculum and it is normal to spend several hours per day performing experiments. Some of my most memorable moments have a connection with the time spent in these laboratories. The lab I am talking about was optics lab and experiments on reflection, scattering, interference and diffraction of various kinds as also various spectra used to be subject matter of the experimental study.
Ramadhin looked after the Optics laboratory at the Science College. He had been there for twenty years, and preferred not to be shifted as he had become a kind of expert on those equipments. And nobody among professors wanted him to be moved as his presence made their job much easier. He could with the flick of his fingers adjust the apparatus in no time. Even professors found it difficult to get the interference patterns in the Michelson or Febry-Perot Interferometer at times, but it was a child’s play for Ramadhin.
Ramadhin was merely a peon in the department. His highest education must have been no more than high school. Most of the labs in the university were and still are looked after by peons without any previous knowledge or experience. Perhaps this was the only option available as the limited funds at university’s disposal could not allow appointment of trained laboratory professionals and technicians for each and every lab. However, it didn’t make much difference where people like Ramadhin were available and appreciated. He might not be able to write the equations leading to the interference pattern but the pattern itself was under his control. In fact much of the useful work in this country was and is being managed by simple underpaid folk like him. Although his status officially was that of a peon he wielded an authority only slightly below that of the faculty members, and he deserved it.
Ramadhin usually did not bother about our activities. It was rare when he complained of an act of indiscipline by some of us. Mostly he himself had that authority and we tried to respect that. It was to our own advantage as he did not bother whether we were working, talking or gossiping. At times we used to listen to the running cricket commentary using the small transistor receiver assembled by Rama himself.
Winter months were the most enjoyable time when enjoying the sunshine we prepared our notes, gossiped, listened to commentary and occasionally entered the lab to complete our quota of the experiments. At times we celebrated a special occasion, especially if it was some one’s birthday. We ordered tea from the nearby canteen and there were sweets and samosas to celebrate with. We avoided Fridays as regards such activities, as on that day professors visited the lab. After having completed the experiment we were supposed to get our results checked by one of the professors, and then we were allotted the next experiment. There were few questions about the conceptual aspects of the experiments and finally marks were given on that basis. Friday afternoons we kept things in order and appeared quite a disciplined lot. Other days were quite different.
It was quite common to be carried away in arguments. Sometimes discussions took quite an undesirable turn resulting in hot arguments leading to thumping of desks. Normally non interfering Ramadhin used to emerge as if from nowhere, and warned us. We knew he would not accept indiscipline beyond a reasonable limit and came to our normal selves. However, on most occasions our discussions were in cordial atmosphere and at times useful too. Mostly it was about concepts, and the ways to remember difficult formulae. In fact we had codified several formulae, so that in exams if you happened to forget one it was easy to remember if the code was at hand. The person who came up with a good code was given a treat by rest of us, and it was taken as his copyright.
Those days we had only one examination at the end of the year. This was good enough as in a semester system you have to be ready for frequent examinations and quizzes. Among our group mates was Prem Nath, a lean and thin fellow with somewhat longer hair. He had a gift for originality. We knew that he was good in playing guitar which unfortunately could not be brought into the lab. However, on certain occasions he invited us to his residence and we enjoyed a musical evening. Among others was Sudhakar who was a good singer from our standards. Prem and Sudhakar were great assets on special occasions.
We came to know that Ramadin would be taking ten days leave to arrange his daughter’s marriage. He lived in a village few miles away and commuted on cycle. However, he had to oversee all aspects including the expenses. Once he mentioned that he will have to take loans for the big occasion. He also borrowed money from some of the faculty members. During our informal chats in the lab one afternoon the topic of discussion was related to Rama’s problem. It was Prem who initiated the discussion:
“ Can we do something for Ramadin. After all he is such a great help to all of us.”, he said, and then there was a silence.
“ Yes, we can present a gift for his daughter”, came up Sudhakar.
Most of us agreed, Yogesh kept mum.
Prem came up with his plan:
“ We can present a gift, but more than that some money, say five hundred rupees in cash.”
“ Five hundred in cash and money for the present, it would be no less than six”, said Yogesh. “How can we manage, and how many among classmates would agree.”
Prem closed his eyes for a few seconds and then said:
“ Just listen to my proposed plan. First of all we are not going to ask everyone in the class. Our small group comprises six persons. Let us not fix an amount, each of us may contribute whatever he can. ”
Yogesh disagreed, “ I do not want to be part of it”.
“Rama is not a rich man, and he is in some difficulty. Moreover, he is a man of dignity and would not ask us for help. You know the salary of a peon. We should do something
Each of us will contribute according to his pocket and budget”, pleaded Prem.
This time I intervened: “ Our interaction with Rama is relatively deeper. For almost four hours every day we work in his presence, and he helps us when we are in need, and some credit for our smooth sailing goes to him as well. Moreover, we shall contribute whatever we can do comfortably, and do it without anyone knowing how much each of us contributed.”
Alok agreed with me, “ I agree with Mohit. Not only that Ramadhin is very helpful in our work, he ungrudgingly tolerates our cynical discussions, and rarely reports the matter.”
All appeared to agree. Yogesh kept mum. Balu said:
“ In principle I also agree, however, I doubt if we can arrange that sum”.
“It does not matter if we can not. Whatever we can manage will be presented to him”, said Prem.
That day it was getting late and the topic had to be dropped. After about a week we had time to assemble again in our usual gossiping arena. What topic for today, I thought. Alok started:
“So we have dropped the idea of helping Rama.”
Prem smiled. He had brought a cardboard box, placing it on the table, he said:
“ This is our deposit box, I have already put in some money, how much I would not tell you”. He pushed it towards me “ Mohit you take it, put in this your contribution.”
I took the box to the dark room, put down my contribution and came back. Alok, Balu, Sudhakar all followed. One by one everyone did the same, except Yogesh.
It was decided that Balu would keep the box and count the net amount. He was given the responsibility of buying the gift as he was living with his parents. His mother could help him in deciding the gift item and buying the same. As reported by him next day the net deposits were Rs 350/- , not bad at all but somewhat short of the target.
“We may get a gift in Rs 100/-, and the rest 250 can be given in cash”. Said Alok.
The day Rama was to go on leave all of us went to him with the gift and cash in an envelope. Prem led the group and when we presented Rama the gift and the cash he simply could not believe.
“Please accept it. It will give us great happiness if you do”, pleaded Prem.
Rama opened the envelope, and counted. To our surprise it was five hundred and not only remaining 250/- as per our expectation. We knew that only Prem could have done it.
“It is too much, you do not earn and I cannot accept this”, he gave it back to Prem.
“We shall feel hurt if you do not”, said Prem.
“The gift is enough, why cash”, queried Ramadhin.
“Please accept”, pressed Prem.
“If I do, what have I to do in return”.
“Thank us and bless us for the exams”.
Rama was no fool. He was poor alright, but a man of dignity and some principles.
He said “ I am here to help you in your lab work. Whenever you come across a problem I do my best to help. I must tell you one thing, during exams I am not supposed to help you to complete your experiment. Exams must be fair, and no exceptions. It has been a matter of principle for me.”
I was overwhelmed. This man, who earned not more than 300 per month, rejecting Rs 500/- in time of urgent need. We talk of big things but the country is being managed and run by supposedly small men like him, I thought.
“We know this, there are no conditions”, said Prem. We all shook our heads.
Rama said “No, I would be under pressure, if I accept. In exams one of you would come to me, unable to complete his experiment. It happens every year. I have to refuse as a matter of principle. I only check one thing, that the apparatus in not defective. My responsibility ends there. Accepting such big sum would amount to a moral pressure on me.”
He accepted the gift, and refused to accept the cash.
“If you need it then take it as a loan, with no interest. And return the amount to me in instalment as per your convenience”, said Prem.
To that Rama agreed.
After the marriage ceremony over, Rama joined back his duty. He did not forget to bring sweets for us.
At the end of the session in April it was examination time. Our gossip parleys began shrinking and there was a sense of urgency in air. The marks allocated for the lab work amounted to 200 while four hundred were for four theory papers, it added to 600. It was necessary to get passing marks separately in theory as well as practical. The element of uncertainty was always there. In theory you could get good marks if topics you had prepared made their appearance in the question paper. There was some uncertainty about the lab and in particular the optics part. We were given the experiments using some kind of lottery system. A large number of answer sheets each having two experiments scribbled on it, were spread out on table face upside down and arranged randomly. Your name was announced, and you went there to pick up any two without knowing what was indicated in it and then have a look at it. Out of the two you select one and go ahead performing the experiments. It was more or less a lottery type situation. The experiments which were dreaded by the students in general were the interferometers. If it was your bad day you may get the dreaded experiment. If it was a very bad day the elusive interference patterns in spite of your knowledge of the subject would not arrive. And every year there were unlucky fellows who had to face the situation. They could get the desired result but on certain occasions the unlucky ones failed or had their division degraded. There were all sorts of stories going around which we heard from our seniors and they from their seniors and so on, and in each communication it was exaggerated and finally came to us almost like a folklore. In one such anecdote a student who got very good marks in theory failed in lab work as he could not obtain the interference pattern. It was compulsory to get pass marks separately in theory and lab work. The poor fellow appeared in examination next year, and he got the same experiment again. He fainted instantly and had to be admitted to hospital. Teachers passed him on humanitarian grounds but poor fellow could get only poor grade. We knew that there has been some exaggeration. However, with such stories going around even the lion hearted among us felt a chill in the bones. For the weak hearts it was no less than Tsunami approaching.
The day of judgment finally arrived. Answer sheets were picked up by students one by one. Prem and Yogesh got the two dreaded experiments on interference. The reactions were different. Prem had always been philosophical, he took it with a detached indifference. Yogesh was not among the tough ones, moreover he hailed from a relatively poor family background. He became panicky.
In fact it was a question of nerves. If you did not lose nerves there was a better chance of your making it. If you became nervous then there was every chance that you faltered. It was like walking on a rope. The plus point was that there were six hours allocated for the work. You could try again and again, and out of ten attempts made there was a fair chance of your making it.
Yogesh faltered. Only one last hour left. Prem managed in his last attempt. Yogesh again faltered. He started perspiring. Yogesh could not go to Ramadhin, who was the only hope, partly because Rama’s policy of fair exams was known. He hesitated even in asking because he was the person who was opposed to contributing money for Rama. Nobody wanted him to contribute a big amount and he could have put in two rupees only. I asked Rama to check if the apparatus was alright, the plates etc in order. Rama checked and reported that he could get the pattern and it took him only five minutes. He asked Yogesh to try again. However Yogesh faltered and lost nerve. Only last half hour remaining, he submitted his answer sheet in dismay and wanted to leave. I told Rama of his family conditions and the fact that he would not continue again if he could not pass this year.
Rama closed his eyes for a few seconds, and then stared at me. I felt guilty of putting pressure on him on humanitarian ground. However, he went to the apparatus, set it in five minutes and got the pattern.
“Take the readings”, he asked Yogesh.
We could not believe it. Among the stories circulated were the stories of Rama’s strict adherence to norms, and I was the person who must share the guilt. My telling him that Yogesh will not be able to continue if he failed stirred something within him.
Examination were over, and the results declared. Yogesh had done very well. I congratulated him on his performance.
“It is a strange world, Mohit”, Yogesh did not sound quite happy.
“What happened, you are not satisfied”.
“ Grades are better than expected, but I am unhappy due to other reasons. Because of me Rama had to make a compromise with his principles”, he said.
“Oh, come on, that is no reason to be so sad’ I said.
“He deserves much more than what he really is, on all counts. I also feel bad in my opposition to help him”, he said.
I just looked at him. He continued:
“I went to him and thanked him. Then I proposed to give him some money, in fact four hundred rupees which I borrowed from Prem”, he became silent.
I could hear his voice choking. I waited for him to compose himself. After few seconds he continued:
“ Ramadhin congratulated me for getting good grades in the examination.
However, he refused to accept the money, and said”:
“I have broken my own rule of not helping anyone in exams. I blame myself for that. However, it was a bad act on my part, but for a good cause. Till now my conscience is clear. If I accept your money I will be guilty. Don’t you see that”.
There was a silence.
“What happened next”, I asked.
“ I touched his feet and came back”.
I could clearly see tiny droplets in his eyes.