My Few Months in the US – Part 5: Of Hidden Traits & Sandals in Winter
Sharing an apartment leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown traits in people.
The third person in our apartment, apart from Swapan-da and me, was KR, also a PhD student. He was very affable, jovial and helpful. But, over time, cracks began to appear in his veneer.
At first, it was only mildly irritating but not really offensive.
When it was my turn to cook, KR would sidle up rubbing his hands in anticipation, and suggest an elaborate menu for dinner—fish korma, gobi matar and kaali daal, for example. But when it came to his turn, he would feign a headache and suggest TV dinners (a lugubrious mass in an aluminum pack, meant to be heated in an oven before eating). 
But a new, and distasteful, aspect appeared.
Getting groceries was an unavoidable chore that nobody liked to do. One of us would trudge down to the supermarket nearly half a mile away, and come back carrying two big paper bags full of stuff.  The bill (with one’s name on it) would be lodged in a box, and at month-end Swapan-da would add them all up and work out three equal shares, minus what each of us had already spent.
This was something that KR usually found ways and means to avoid doing, but one day he volunteered! Moreover, he chose to do it at a time when Swapan-da and I were both away, so that when we returned we found the groceries neatly put away and the bill placed prominently on the dining table.
Unfortunately for KR, he had not realised that apart from being a master in theoretical economics (he went on to be a professor), Swapan-da was a master in practical economics, too.
“Hmmm,” said Swapan-da, “KR has done a lot of work.”
I nodded. Frankly, I was impressed.
“Let me see,” said Swapan-da, and began to tally each item on the bill against the stuff stored away.
Sure enough, odd items appeared—after-shave, blades, talcum powder, and soap none of which were for common consumption.
Silently, Swapan-da circled the items in red on the bill, deducted their cost from the total, and replaced the bill on the table.
I would have called KR and asked him to explain, but Swapan-da was a gentleman, unlike KR.
Soon thereafter, KR moved out to another apartment and Sammy moved in. Heaven!
I continued to find that college in the US was not quite like IIT. 
An example.
We had a subject called operations research (OR) which involved formulating a huge equation to solve a problem that had no unique solution. The end-term exam was one single question, a full one-page of information and data, from which we had to formulate the OR equation that a computer would try to solve through repeated runs.
I constructed the equation, but it was very puzzling. It seemed to be a standard equation with one unique solution, and hence not an OR problem at all.
I went through the working again and again, and yet again, but the result was the same—one unique solution.
Finally, I gave up, and wrote in the answer paper—this is not an OR problem, and explained why.
When the grades were declared, I was the only A, because nobody else had either realised, or dared to say, what I had said.
The professor said, “You need to understand where OR will work, and where it won’t—otherwise, there is no point in learning about OR.”
Another time, in a finance course, we paired up to solve cases relating to finance problems in industries. My partner and I spent hours in the library and, quite by accident, came upon our case itself—the real-life story from which our case had been prepared, with different names, of course.
Triumphantly, we described in class what had actually happened, and with 20/20 hindsight, what should have been done.
To our great surprise, the professor was upset. “You were meant to understand the process of solving the problem, not find out what actually happened,” he said, and gave us Ds on that assignment.
Quite unfairly, I thought at the time. But, looking back, I guess he was right. We were meant to learn.
I have said before that Americans take college education seriously. Yes, this is true but, as always, there was an exception.
Actually, two exceptions – two African-American girls. They went through undergraduate college and MBA on scholarships, and now they were guaranteed jobs in some big corporation anxious to improve its “equal opportunity employer” image. Being both A-A and F, they had a double advantage in the job market vis-à-vis the ordinary WASP guys.
As you would expect, these girls took it easy!
I must mention that our classmates must have found Sammy and me to be quite strange.
Take me, for example.
I found quite early on that the cost of a haircut was $10, plus a $2 tip. That was big money for me, almost four hours of dishwashing! So, I didn’t have a haircut.  
By the end of six months, I had quite long hair, and it continued to grow until I made friends with Kurian, a PhD student. His wife Susan was learning to style hair, and she was happy to cut my hair, for practice. Win-win for both of us!
Sammy, on the other hand, had a close-crop crew cut. If his hair grew to more than half an inch in length, he would feel like a hippy, he said.  Yes, the pair of us did look rather strange together.
We had other quirks, too.
Both of us wore very comfortable strapped sandals, brought from India, which eliminated the need for socks. This was fine in summer but in winter, with snow all around, sandals were, well, too cool for comfort.
Fortunately, we discovered snow overshoes, into which you slipped your normal shoes to walk in the snow, and took them off when you reached indoors. Just right for us! We used to saunter around the college buildings in the middle of winter, wearing sandals, having left our snowshoes near the entrance. That did raise a lot of eyebrows, but we didn’t care.
Yes, things were different then!
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
10 months ago
Interesting anecdotes from student life in US in eighties. I think students today have it a lot easier.
10 months ago
Never knew about snow overshoot! Thanks
Replied to JHA.NISHANT comment 10 months ago
Overshoe, I mean.
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