NO SEX, SOME DRUGS AND A LITTLE BIT OF ROCK AND ROLL:
An autobiographical account of my experiences as a Guitar Player:
Part One : 1966 to 1971.
"We're going to a 'JAM SESSION", said my sister on 24th. December 1966. I had just arrived at my father's Indian Air force Quarters in Dhaula Kuan, New Delhi. " And, you'll need a partner".
Vaguely I had remembered hearing the word "Jam Session" a few months ago from my cousin in Bishop Cottons, where the Girl's School Boarders regularly hosted a "Social" for their counterparts in the Boy's School across the road. We all got dressed up for the evening, which was at the Defense Services Officer's Institute in D.K. I got ready to partake some Jam with Toast & Butter with a "partner".
Of course, what we had landed up for was the Christmas Eve Party for the Club members - mostly Senior & Middle level Officers in the Defense Forces, most of who lived in D.K.
But, what I got to see for the first time in my life was a group of musicians performing live. In fact, there were two bands - Raja Andrews and the Nabobs. Andrews was from the Air force and along with his sisters had got going one of the first bands in India. In fact, Andrews had already "cut a disk" one of the first in India. The music was mainly Pop, with a lot of instrumentals of the Shadows and Ventures.
The second band was the quintessential Rock & Roll Group and was called pretentiously THE BEAT HOVENS. In contrast to Andrews, this band of four - the classic line-up, launched into a raunchy belting Rock & Roll, Twist etc. doing Elvis, Chubby Checkers and even Chuck Berry.
I never got to know what happened to the Beat Hovens, but within fifteen minutes, as I gyrated with my Partner, I came to the most colossal decision in my life.
"This is what I want to do. Somehow, some day I must become a Rock & Roll musician."
Western Music, even the Pop variety had in 1966, a very miniscule but growing audience. My father and mother were keen listeners to all types of music. My mother in later years completed an MA in Carnatic music. My father, who joined the "Royal" Indian Air Force in 1943, saw some desultory action in Burma and at the end of the war acquired a large collection of 78 RPM records from ENSA Calling - the war time troops entertainment organization for the Allied Forces. There was a lot of Jazz, Music for dancing the latest Charleston, Tango & Fox trot and recordings of Spike Mulligan and his outfit, which I really liked. I was told dad had got these from the troupe itself having befriended Spike & Ernie Entwhistle. Many years later I got to know that Ernie was the father of John Entwhistle of THE WHO.
My father's attempt to make me a musician came to grief when Master Warrant Officer George, my violin master realized after two years that I hadn’t learnt to read from a Music Score even though I pretended daily to. "Remember lad" he said, "If you keep playing by ear, you'll only get that far.” I’ve often thought that he was right and I had missed the opportunity to learn from one of the best ever conductors and composers of Military Band music.
An attempt had been made to get my two sisters trained in both the Veena and Bharathnatyam dancing. I was not sent for these classes, but when my sisters practiced at home I would watch and go through the motions playing the veena by ear. One of my uncles gave me a Harmonica, which I found the ideal instrument to play simple tunes on.
Another family friend introduced me to the "morsing" or Jew's harp. I didn’t see this so much as a musical instrument, but a gadget to create mirth & mayhem in the Std.8 class in Clarence High School. We had an algebra teacher who had a way of dramatizing each equation and would turn to the board with a flourish and write the Answer. Through the period each time he did it, my morsing would go "Twoiiiinnngg" with the whole class exploding in giggles. By the end of the day, the morsing had been confiscated and I had been lined up for "Six cuts" caning from a bible thumping, sadist, white, (Australian) principal. This did not end there as my family friend showed me where to buy these wonderful & simple instruments from the "Gujali"or second hand goods market. They were really cheap - within 0ne or two rupees.
By the week end there was one in every class from Std 6 upwards and on Friday I accompanied Noel Welcome in Class 7 for the customary caning. Poor Noel, he lead a typical working musicians life - poor, sick and died last year from cirrhosis.
The other source for music was the radio in the years 1963-67. Mainly Radio Ceylon, where most of the requests went out from my own friends. "... And this one goes out to Richard & Frank Beedle..." Both brothers, one in my class were confirmed back-benchers, never making too much trouble but never coming anywhere above the bottom three in class marks. I always wondered how they must have spent their time daily - to send a request to Radio Ceylon, you had to mail to Colombo using International Mail Covers and would be far more expensive than a post card. Radio Ceylon, had I feel, a very strong influence on the Anglo-Indian community and I find they still like best are Country & Western. Jim Reeves, who died in a crash in Ceylon, was the Anglo-Indian (and my) favorite.
In the early sixties, the Elvis Presley movies came to town - Girls,Girls,Girls; Kid Galahad, Mess of Blues, California Sunshine, GI Blues and also Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday. I also liked Dean Martin and saw his Matt Helm movies whenever they came
I was in STD 9 or 10, quite shy with girls, and the only thing that terrified me was that during the Elvis movies, the theatre was about 95 % filled with girls. Clarence School, in Bangalore, was co-ed but as the Principal said "There will be no fraternizing between the sexes.
On the other hand, my sisters had been in Delhi for the last two years. Being a close-knit society of children of Defense Officers, they belonged to the most Westernized, Forward and emaciated youth in town, perhaps in the whole of India. Being Christmas season, there was a whirl of parties with lots of dancing and music, mostly recorded. There was, however, no promiscuity as is so common now. I remember one young lady, considered quite wild, whom did the gang tolerate only because she had the best collection of 45-RPM records - all the latest hits.
Next to Anglo-Indians, Air force Officers are the best party makers. At the south east tip of New Delhi, Dhaulakuan along with a string of Military residential outlets – Mukherji Park, Kirby Place a group of easily the “most in and hep crowd in Delhi, even if you didn’t know them. It consisted always, of the same old circle of service officer’s children.
The dads and moms would generally occupy the main house till the kids, us, who’d been told to go outside and “make as much noise by yourselves dears, near the cabbage patch next to the tamarind tree. So we’d cart all our boxes of 45s and the “portable record changer 45 & 78 RPM only”.
I can’t for the life of me, imagine how people crave for more sophist action and are willing to pay more and more for a more advanced sound reproduction systems. The adults at this party had an even worse situation. One Squadron Leader had not kept up his promise to cart his Grundig Stereo – a beastly big thing would have quite a fortune to cart all the way from Hindon Airbase a good 40 kms. Away over the Jamuna river.
The young hostess, Swati, a most beautiful girl reminded her dad of his dad’s old wind-up 78 RPM Gramophone from His Master’s House. She even dug out her dad’s own collection of Western Music. A scratchy selection of Pre World War I & II ragtime and jazz hits came out every now and then, the needle slipping on the groove like a parrot till some one pushed it a little further missing a good few bars and lines in the song. The adults waltzed and fox-trotted round in the hall while the” kids” shrugged, twisted and monk eyed to the latest in “POP MUSIC” wore the late
sisters had got ut I couldn’t pick up the courage to even look a girl in the eye. Besides all round me the couples gyrated expertly. I saw an old couple, must have been in their 60's, but so agile that he was swinging her around in the most energetic Jive like I had seen in Marlon Brando's Wild One.
"Young man, aren’t you going to ask me for a dance?" Startled I looked up to see my Hindi Teacher; At least she looked like that, at least 50 years old and with the same stern expression. "kaye naamla ?" she asked me as I allowed myself to be gingerly round the dance floor. I realized she had asked my name in Goan Kinaki and told her." Shireen nivas eh ? Not Goan eh ?". At the end of the song she dropped me like a brick and moved across the room. I fled to the balcony and found a tiny hiding spot behind the Double Bassist.
Recovering my precocious nerves, I spent the rest of the evening watching the Band. It had a Tenor Saxophone in the lead, with a trumpeter accompanying, a pianist played in typical swingy Honky-Tonk style while a Drummer and the Double Bass provided the beat. The musicians were all middle aged and obviously very experienced. Though not really equipped for it, they also spun out the latest Rock & Roll numbers from the Beatles, Elvis, and Elvis Costello & Buddy Holly. The double Bass player seemed the oldest - at least 80. He seemed to have too many friends in the crowd as different guests had been ordering drinks for him from the bar and giving it to him rather regularly. "Hi Jock, nice to see you still going strong. 'Ere 'ave a "whet" on me." After about three "whets", he muttered "What a waste of good booze" and tipped the glass into the large Potted fern I was sitting on.
When he was going to do it the next time, he noticed me and asked "Son, do you think you're old enough to have a drink ?".
"Yes, Uncle," I said, " My father just told me so yesterday." Actually my father had taken me to the Mess when my results had come in and instead of the usually "Large Whisky & Soda for me and Orange Juice for the Boy", had said, "Large Whisky for me and a small one for the young man." We really did'nt speak for the rest of the day and I assumed his approval to join the grown up world of Drinkers.
I told the old man my story. "OK then, just this one", he said and handed me the glass. By the end of the evening I had drunk four glasses, almost passed out and carried into my home. My mother fussed over me, making disapproving noises to the people who had taken me. "It's New Year's Eve. It's the time for a man to be drunk." said my father refusing to admonish or hold any body responsible for my plight.
Throughout the evening I had a long running conversation with the old double bass player. Luckily the whole band was playing acoustically except for the singer's mike and it was not so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation.
I found that his job seemed quite easy, almost mechanical. However, it was evident that the old man was enjoying himself. He kept up a conversation with me, but never faltered a note. Occasionally he would burst out in song harmonizing with the lead singer - the Saxophone player - for the choruses.
I told him I had learnt a bit of music on the violin. I asked him how the double bass was played.
"Waaal," he said slowly, "It can be a difficult instrument in Symphony orchestras where the Bass is bowed with a bow, and Playing Jazz is also difficult. But here most songs are on three chords - mostly in B Flat or F keys. See.." he pointed to the finger board, you get F here, B Flat here, C seventh here and E Flat here."
He took a piece of chalk and marked the positions on the fingerboard.
"Here, " he said "'aver a go. I might want to take a leak soon." Nervous, but extremely proud to be given the honor, I exchanged places with him and he sat on the Fern pot telling me the changes "B flat.....E flat on the next bar,... back to B Flat.. one on F one on E Flat and so on..." It was my first lesson in 12 bar blues.
During this brief opportunity, I had already started getting an idea of the instrument, it was like an overgrown fiddle, but the tuning was different.
"E-A-D-G" said the old man, "Oh, just like a violin ?" I asked.
"Not quite," he informed. " The strings are reversed, in this the top string is E and on the violin it is G".
I had seen photos of Paul McCartney's left handed Hofner Violin Bass. Always one to take things apart, I took out my violin and tried re-tuning the strings to the Bass Guitar.
Indeed it was lucky that the singer had just two keys most of his songs were being played on. After about three songs, the old man decided I was competent enough to hold fort till his return from the loo. On his way out he told the Band Leader " Going for a leak." The band leader nodded on his sax, but hearing the bass still going he turned and saw me and then turned again to the old man with a raised eyebrow. " My Godson," said the old man giving me a wink. "Just keep yer timing and key" said the bandleader to me and turned back to his sax.
The next three minutes was absolute bliss for me. I started watching the crowd of dancers, slowly realizing that I was part of the machine that controlled their feet and body movements, their dance and their happiness. A very young girl swinging round from her partner, caught my eye and my fancy. Later I did pick up enough courage (after two pegs) and asked her for a dance. "Your band ?" she asked me. "No." I replied "First time I've ever played with anybody." "Well you didn’t do too bad ", she added, "Are you going to have your own band ?"
My reply was a most determined "Yes, very soon."
Listening to musicians.
The "very soon" indeed took me a long, long time. Leaving aside the experimental learning period, it was four years later, in 1971 that my first college band "the Stoned Package" performed for a beat contest.
It was yet another two years later, in Allahabad, that I started playing in a band, which was actually paid for a performance.
And, it was still much later, in 1990, at the ripe old age of 40 that I realized a dream I had dreamt at the age of 16. Only in May '90 did I actually start working as a full time, every night, guitarist in the Bangalore Cabaret hotels circuit. In between there is a long, long story of small joys, happy events, gross tragedies and monumental sorrows that flowed past my life in a never ending tease of keeping the end goal so near and yet so far.
I did want to become a rock musician. But at that time in January 1967, I had to first learn to play rock music before even thinking of joining a band. My training on violin had extended two years, but had been abandoned for some time now. Anyway, I could never play the violin with any melodiousness. My grandfather's reaction every time I pulled the bow over the strings was : " Don't torture the Cat" or, "Babloo, I think the front gate needs oiling."
Also, the violin was not a Rock & Roll Band's instrument. Neither was the Harmonica, which I could play to some effect. The "morsing" (Jew's Harp) was traditionally a percussion accompaniment to carnatic music, which I could have well learned from my mother, but never did. Whatever music theory I had learnt from my violin master MWO George, did however, help me in understanding triads, chords, scales and keys - the basic essentials for a guitarist.
One thing Clarence School had given me, was an interest to sing. Ole Mrs. Gordon was music teacher and I really enjoyed her classes. Though enjoined by the Protestant, Evangelical school management to teach only religious hymns, Mrs. Gordon, a Catholic, did teach us a few secular songs, nevertheless traditional. The school also had a daily morning assembly, when the whole school rendered a selected hymn with Mrs. Gordon accompanying on the Piano. The music room was set a little away from the main school - ostensibly to not disturb the other classes, but more I suspect, because Mrs. Gordon's Roman Catholic influence could be kept away from the other protestant teachers.
Though enjoying the morning Hymns, in higher classes my friends & I registered a quiet protest against all the evangelizing. Instead of
"Oh to be a Daniel, Oh to stand alone,
Oh to have a purpose dear and Oh to make it known".
we would go:
"Oh bum-titti, bumtitti, tittibum ashole,
Oh titti-bum, titti-bum Oh titti- bum my h***."
All in perfect timing & key. Fortunately four hundred other voices drowned out our blasphemy.
Back in Delhi, January '67, the party given for my 10th. class results, turned out for me, a disappointment. My sisters had invited all their friends, there were a number of very pretty teenagers, but I got left out.
The first problem was my dad. An excellent dancer and quite the life of the party, he had monopolized all of them with typical Air force off- color jokes, just that racy to keep all the girls in blushing giggles. It is a fact, probably, that most Air force Officers, even the bald 40 plus ones, are lady-killers.
One of the young lads had brought a guitar. When the young couples tired of dancing, he took it out and crooned a few songs. He had just started a few months back and could already manage Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are made for walking", and " Love is blue." But his basic knowledge seemed enough to get the song going reasonably in time and well in tune. Enough, it seemed to me to impress the girls, who sat around him oohing & sighing. By the end of the evening his pride had swelled like a peacock as he acknowledged his newfound popularity.
It made me even more determined to become a musician.
But when I asked him to let me feel his guitar, he became quite tacky about it and said loftily "Well, you've first got to learn to play it." This was a shock to me, my experience with the old Goan Double Bass player in the Gidney Club had given me an expression that all musicians were kind and had some brotherhood with other musicians. Throughout the years after I've probably met more musicians with inflated ego and identity problems than musicians who didn’t. Hurt though I was, I did go over to the guitar player’s house and asked him to show me the basis chord positions. I also realized that no one was going to teach you, you had to watch, observe, pick up the tiny crumbs of knowledge and experiment yourself with the music.
The evening before I left Delhi back to Bangalore for my Senior Cambridge year, my sisters took me to a disco in South Extension. A band was playing - the Pebbles. The music was "bubble-gum" -
" Sugar,.... Honey, Honey,..... You are my Candy Girl and you want me to want you." by the Archies. The song was very popular with pre-teens but too kiddish for my taste. I wanted something more harder and heavy.
" Can you do an Elvis or a Beatles ?" I asked them. They obliged with "I wanna hold your hand."
Taking a break, the band joined us at our table. The drummer, Vinod Rao was from Bangalore. Three years later, his brother, Ravi was playing with our rival Band the Void.
"My brother plays Double Bass with a jazz band," said my sister proudly. Even though I profusely denied it the band seemed quite impressed that I had even stood in for a few minutes for a jazz band at the Gidney club.
" Bangalore's the place for guitarists and rock groups, " Vinod told me. He gave me the address where Biddu Appaiah & the Trojans were practicing - it was virtually opposite my grandfather's house in Benson Town. He also told me to check out Causey Meyers who ran guitar classes and buy an ordinary beginners guitar from N.Lewis & Co., also in Benson Town.
I had been telling my mother my future career aims. "You're not an Anglo - Indian," she said, "why do you want to play guitar and take away the birthright of these Anglo Indians & Goans. If you've really got talent get into Indian Classical music. Besides, no body ever made money out of western music in India. All those musicians you met at the Gidney Club are Railway employees and do this only for a hobby."
"But ma, the Pebbles are getting two hundred rupees a week to play in the discotheque on Saturday & Sunday afternoons, " I protested, "it works out to fifty bucks per head, which is more than the pocket money some of my richer classmates get for the whole month."
"If that's a hint for Pocket Money," warned my father, "be sure you're not getting any till you reach College." "Why don't I get pocket money then, " I asked. I could save out of it and buy a guitar.
"You'll only end up smoking cigarettes out of it," explained my father " and I don’t want you to start smoking till you're seventeen, at least." This seemed arbitrary and I asked him why. "Because I started smoking at seventeen." he replied quite simply.
My request for a guitar and guitar lessons was also categorically turned down.
My first class result had turned out to be a double-edged sword. It convinced my father that I should become an Engineer and join a prestigious Engineering College - preferably one of the IITs. To get in I had to not only score very well in the Senior Cambridge, but also prepare for a tough competitive entrance exam.
"Once you get into the IIT, preferably Madras," he said , "You'll have five full years to not only study but pursue your musical hobbies. For, a hobby it must be. You'll never ever be able to feed yourself and family on your guitar."
My father kept repeating his view that I would never be able to earn to feed a family from music till he died in 1981. It was a pity. Ten years later, in 1991, when I joined as guitarist in Talk of the Town and fed my family for three years thence, I was forced to turn to the heavens and exclaim "dad you were wrong."
When I got back to Bangalore, I checked out the Trojans. They were practicing in Peter Vasnaik's house just two houses away from my Grandfather's. My grandfather was not keen that I mix with them.
"I believe they smoke ganja." he said. " I only want to watch them practice," I told him.
I found Biddu quite snooty and aloof. He had already " cut a disk". The A side was "Under my thumb."
The song was innocent enough, not a loud 'driving one insane' type. Yet, I do find it surprising that it was during this song at the Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, USA, that the Hell's Angels clobbered a fan to death abruptly ending the show.
Skinny Flint, the bassist was much more likable. He did not think that "cutting a disc" was any big deal. "We got just 300 copies from HMV and we've been giving away most of it free to friends.
The band was also splitting up. Pam Crain had come down from Calcutta hoping Biddu would record the next disc with her voice. Biddu was already talking about being the "lone Trojan." Also he was leaving shortly to England. He did that year, but many years later Biddu made it really big as a producer. He came to India with his most popular (in India) protégée Apache Indian and set into demand the new Birmingham Bhangra sound that has been all the rage since 1995.
One evening some family friends had taken me out for dinner at Napolis the best joint in town. It had a live Band. It had an “exotic dance – floor show twice a week. It still did till the LAST DAYS OF ROCK in August 1995. Pam Crain, down from Trincas, Calcutta. It has been one of life’s few regrets that I’ve never heard Pam Crain and it’s one of my life’s few regrets that I’d never been to Calcutta and play, on stage, at Trincas, Calcutta’s most fabulous temple of the Night Life. I can assure you that Pam Crain, with her sylvan voice and body language in a pioneering time for the Indian Rock & Roll, inspired wannabe rock stars like myself.
Attagirl, Pam. And Usha Uthup too.
At the fragile age of 16 years and 7 months, along with some of my earliest experiences to what Jack London called “John Barleycorn” at Napolis that night, I had instantly fallen in love for Pam Crain.
That year, the Mustangs, another Bangalore - Madras band recorded "Escape". An instrumental with Kittu Rufus on lead and Domnique on Sax, it seemed inspired by the Ventures. In fact the B-side of the 45-RPM single had a cover, Ventures "Cruel Sea".
Suresh & Ramesh Shottam, two brothers, were senior to me and had finished school from Clarence. Along with Adolf & Malcolm Fernandes, they had formed the Spartans. The Shottam brothers had understanding parents who had got them some very good equipment. Suresh had a Fender Mustang guitar and a Vox 60 Watt tube amplifier. Ramesh had a Pearl drum kit. Being from the same school, the brothers did'nt mind my coming and watching them practice. The Fernandez brothers were not so accommodating. Besides, the practices took place in their house. Suresh worked out a little scheme for me so that I could visit the band. A chain letter type scheme had come along, where each member finds four more collects one rupee from each and passes it up the chain. Theoretically by the time 8 cycles are over you are expected to get back over One Lakh rupees for the one Rupee put in. Of course, no such thing happened, I lost my one rupee that I had given Suresh and couldn’t get the chain going further. One rupee was a lot of money in those days and Clarence was a school essentially for poor Anglo Indian and Indian Christian children. Most of them were studying under scholarships provided by Church organizations.
" John said he would try and get the cash tomorrow, Suresh" I would report back. " Prakash and Prasad said they are not interested. Noel doesn’t have any cash etc...." And then I would sit in and watch them practice.
This gave me a first hand experience of how a group practices. "Do it again , Man. From the top." or "Take it again from the second Chorus." or "decide on the ending - let's try a fade out,." So at each practice, I could hear one or two songs played over and over again. I liked "Route 66",
And there were fights. "wha the f** you're playing", "wrong chord man." And arguments.
"Why didn’t you come for practice yesterday ?".
"I had to take my dame out, man."
"Don't you know we got a show this Saturday ? Is your dame more important ?"
Malcolm was the good looker in the band. Besides girlfriend, he also had a keen female fan following. The Fernandez’s did not have any imported equipment. Their father literally home made the Bass & Rhythm Guitars. The Shottams were quite uppity about their superior gear. It was probably because of this that the Spartans split up about a year later.
Nevertheless, at that time, the Spartans were Bangalore's best band. Their sound was tight, Malcolm had a very good voice with brother Adolf giving seconds. Suresh and Ramesh were well on the way to becoming superlative Guitarist & Drummer. They did a lot of gigs for which they were paid - in Bowring Institute & Catholic Club. Later they also performed for Sunday Jam Session at Three Aces & Chin Lung. Both these were essentially Cabaret Hotels and at night, the dancers stripped down to the bone.
At Clarence School, the success of the Spartans became the high point of conversation - both among the students and the teachers. Both brothers had passed out of school with very good first classes, had joined college but had already announced their intentions of making Music a full time career. Many of us presently in the school, particularly Noel Welcome, Tony Prakash wanted to emulate them.
The teachers decided to launch an all out attack on this with evangelical fervor. Rock & Roll was, according to the Principal, the Devil's own music.
"If you hear the wordings of the songs and repeat them backwards, you will get prayers for Satan," said Miss Khanna, the Hindi Teacher, " Besides all these new musicians are taking narcotic drugs and alcohol. This is what makes them perform. There is nothing from the heart."
"She's talking s***." said Noel, " the b**** is upset that Suresh, who got the highest marks in his 10th. std. Hindi paper in school, is not going to study further."
It took many years before the evangelical protestant church Okayed the newest version of singing hymns - the Jesus Rock.
My uncle, who had given me my first musical Instrument - the Harmonica, was a member in the Catholic Club and took me for a couple of dances held there. The Catholic Club, in those days was a monopoly of Eddie & the Rhythm Stars. Even when the Spartans, or any other band played, it was always as the second band. Eddie was a familiar sight. He would land up for the show at Catholic Club or the Bowring in the same cycle rickshaw holding his homemade electric Guitar and old RCA wartime amplifier. When he died, the Rhythm Stars also died. But Eddie left behind a good legacy in his sons Junior & Adolf. In the eighties, I often jammed with Junior in Barry's Garage. Junior, is I think, one of the best exponents of Bob Marley & Peter Tosh 's Rasta Reggae music. He also looked like one, complete with dreadlocks.
My Senior Cambridge (GCE - O Level) exams were drawing near. I was under tremendous pressure to do well. My father had already decided that I had to make it to the IIT and become a mechanical engineer.
"I'm not going to pay thousands to buy your engineering college seat," he warned, " so you better get at least 75%. A first Class will not do. At least then, you can get admission to Pilani BITS Engineering College or one of the Regional Engineering Colleges. Warangal will be ideal, the Principal is a retired Group Captain and I've known him in the Air Force."
But what I heard from my friends was not very rosy.
"Imagine five and a half years in a hostel in some remote rural area. There aren’t any dames in Engineering College, those that are there are not even worth looking at. Besides, the course is a long grind. You've got to put in at least ten hours of mugging every day."
Also, I was mortally afraid of getting "ragged". Actually the ragging, even in the worst places, was quite mild by today's standards, where every year brings reports of students who have died during ragging or committed suicide.
I prepared as best as I could. Math & Hindi were my weak points, though I had always liked and topped in Physics. Tuitions were arranged and I hated it more and more. As the weeks got closer, I was denied access to the Record Player, the Radio, my harmonica, violin and my comic books.
The National Science Talent Search '68 was announced in October. Prof. Kothari, then Chairman of the University Grants Commission to stem the flow of scientific talent to the professional courses - Engineering and Medicine, started this prestigious scholarship. The money was, by 1970s standards very good and I knew that it would be enough to give me economic independence from my parents. Besides, I didn’t think much of Engineering. I was more interested in Research - particularly in theoretical aerodynamics. I had read a lot on the subject and even written an article in one of the defense publications on the steps, which a new jet fighter goes through from drawing board to first flight. I had also been a keen Aeromodeller for many years.
My father was not so enthusiastic. "Why do you need a scholarship ? I can afford your college, even in the IIT. Besides the scholarship is only to do B.Sc. With this you can only get a clerical post and there are thousands applying for each post. Even if you study till your PhD, you'll only become a low paid scientist in a government laboratory where you'll land up pushing files and doing any research."
I reached Delhi and Dhaulakuan after completing my Senior Cambridge Exams. I had also spent a week more in the School Lab on my Science Talent project. This was titled "A Modified Wheatstone Bridge using a Calibrated Cell and Alternating Current to measure the Conductivity of Electrolytes."
My results followed about two weeks later. I had obtained a high first class with distinctions (A Plus) in Physics and English Literature. I scraped a first class in Math too. Then came the news that I had been selected for the final interview for the science talent Scholarship. I would have to attend at the UGC head quarters on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, and Dr. Kothari would be on the panel.
"Your project report is very good, " said Dr. Kothari, "we have selected it among the ten best and it will be published in the NCERT Journal. Tell me are you going to study Chemistry or Physics. I see you've got very good marks in Physics."
"Theoretical Aerodynamics, Sir, " I replied. This reply put the whole panel off guard. Your reply was expected to be either Physics, Chemistry, Math or Bio. Anyway, the scholarship as extended only to study B.Sc. and would continue to pay only if the student perused a pure science rather than applied science.
"Can you tell us how a plane flies?" asked one of the panelists. "May I use the black board , Sir ?" I requested and drew a figure explaining the intricacies of Lift & Drag that cause flight. I got the scholarship.
My father was then posted as Director, Aeronautical Research & Development, in the Ministry of defense.
Yet he didn’t appreciate my fervor for experimental research. He still insisted I should do a professional Engineering degree and plan for my future career. His P.A. and other staff were put on the job of applying to various engineering colleges across the country. I was, without consent, enrolled in a Tutorial Course for the IIT entrance exam. The classes were in South Extension, just across the road from where the Pebbles played in the disco. I went for just two classes and hated it.
I never crammed. In my earlier classes, I would read all the textbooks like a storybook or fiction novel at the beginning of the year and this was good enough to see me through the whole year into the next class. I always believed that my knowledge was absorbed permanently by light and interested reading rather that reluctant, intense mugging. Once I read something with interest, even a textbook, I usually remembered it for life and could always answer a question paper on the subject without preparation.
I would take the bus from Daula kuan daily to the Tutorial College in South extension. But instead of attending class, I would spend the morning lounging in a friends house listening to music or sit just outside the disco hearing the band. I went for the entrance exam and after the morning's paper, skipped the afternoon papers and ensured that I would not get a seat in the IITs.
However, applications had already been sent to a dozen other colleges across the country. None of them had an entrance test, but admitted on the basis of the School leaving marks. I got an interview call from every one of them since my marks were good. I had also applied for B.Sc. Honors courses in St. Stephens. Delhi and Central College, Bangalore. My father was unconvinced about pure science and still insisted I should join an engineering college. I would not be entitled to the Science Talent Scholarship if I did.
I took a round trip going to all the engineering colleges my applications had been sent to. In every one, my name was within the first twenty on the provisional list.
I reached Pilani, Rajasthan in time for their annual "Oasis" cultural programme. A rock band named W.A.F.W.O.T. belted out a selection of ripping raunchy rock & roll - Good Golly Miss Molly & Roll over Beethoven - both my favorite Beatles songs. The band's name was an acronym of "What a f****** waste of time" and introduced me to the devil-may-care angst of the rock musician. The band had a violinist, a long lanky dark fellow who pranced around on stage as he played much like the "Fiddler on the Roof".
From Pilani, I went to Ranchi, Dhanbad, Warangal, Trichy, Mangalore and finally reached Bangalore where I insisted I was going to study. The Group Captain at Warangal Regional Engineering College had been extra kind to me and had gone out of the way of making my stay comfortable, yet I didn’t want to join there. I would have no friends if I did.
At Bangalore, I had admission to both the Engineering College and the Central College B.Sc. (Honors) Physics course. The Science Talent Scholarship would be admissible only if I joined the latter.
My father insisted on Engineering. "I am not so poor that you should study on scholarship," he said. I was admitted to the Engineering College, bought all the study books and materials and dispatched to the college.
My classmate from school, Shekar had joined B.A. Honors in English at Central College, which was across the road.
"62 % dames in Centrals, man," he told me. "In my own class only 9 guys with 34 girls. And there's a whole bunch of guys from Bishop Cottons in the Physics Class who play guitar. They’re all Science Talent Scholarship holders."
I brooded my fate of being in a dull engineering college where the female population was just 2 out of 2000. By three weeks, I decided to stop going to engineering college and wrote to my father so. He was livid and threatened to disown me. He wrote and accused my grandfather of spoiling me and encouraging me to rebel against him. My grandfather, who had brought me up most of my life, said "Meet the Head of the Dep’t in Physics and see if you can still get your seat."
I met Dr. Kuchela. "Admissions are over, young man, it's October now.” he said, "However since your name had appeared on the first lists and since you have got the scholarship, I'll try and speak to the Principal and academic council. Do you have any relatives in Central College ?"
I first mentioned my Great grandfather, Prof. Sampath Iyengar, who had been Head of Geology Department and was a renowned geologist who discovered the Kudhremukh iron ore deposits. This didn’t cut much ice, but when I mentioned my aunt, Mrs. Sarla Vasudevan, he was genuinely interested.
"Mrs. Sarla Vasudevan ? Who got the gold medal in M.Sc. Physics last year ? She may be coming to do her Ph.D. in Solid State Physics soon."
"Yes sir," I replied, "Mrs. Vasudevan is my mother's sister."
"In that case, don't worry, " Dr. Kuchela said, "If you're not so brilliant as her, you only must be more so. Do one thing, just go and sit in the class. I shall process your application and regularize your admission."
When my father got to know that I had abandoned Engineering College to study, he refused to speak to me and cut off my allowance and not pay for my education. My grandfather told me not to bother too much about it. I sent my forms to claim the scholarship amount and returned the admission fee to him. Throughout the next three years, I lived on my scholarship and even though I visited my parents at Delhi every summer my father & I were not on speaking terms. He did, when I dropped out of College at the end of the Third year.
"Well, I paid for my own College," I said when confronted by him, "And since you didn’t, you have no right to ask me why I dropped out."