The nth biennial conference on ReCognition was getting underway. It was a fine bright morning at the venue which happens to be a well known satellite institution in the country which specialized in such mysterious areas of research. Having a beautiful campus tended to by a dedicated team of gardeners, suitably granite floored halls, stately whispering academics, suitably dull receptionist, an astute finance officer and above all a Director with a lofty and correct attitude of detachment. It had all the qualifications for holding a conference of this type.
At the venue is our reporter who managed to cadge not only an invitation to attend the opening function but also a lunch ticket (very hard to come by due to the aforesaid finance officer). This invitation he got through a senior academic of the institute. A mild mannered young man, he knew his job, but not wishing to push himself forward, chose to stand on the sidelines watching the proceedings.
The scene presented a grand spectacle of distinguished elderly and youngerly(!) academics attired in the traditional conference dresses. Baggy suits for the elderly, retired Directors, Generals etc., silk sarees for serving women professors, Jeans and T-shirts for the errand boys and girls also known as research scholars. There were also the usual mic adjusters, photo takers etc.
The entire assemblage seen from above presented a series of clusters. The senior most and the loudest and also the most powerful (Fund allotters) and their eager proteges formed the central cluster. Hesitantly trying to touch the central cluster as it were was the second cluster – middle level professors, and the like. Predictably the central cluster was not talking academics but about people, juicy bits of gossip who got promoted, who got extension. Also shamelessly asking, “ did they pay your fare?”, “where are you being put up”, etc. There was even an inner small group which conversed in whispers about confidential matters.
Suddenly, there was a mild commotion and the cause became evident soon. In strode the great Sundar Rao, also known as SR, former Professor, former Chairman, former Advisor, former etc., and current hopeful (of what?). He was very neatly dressed in a suit with a bright red tie. Closely following him were his disciples, one of them carrying his briefcase. In fact one of them was actually walking ahead of him like a pilot in a motorcade. Immediately the central cluster opened and the babel of voices rose by a decibel or two. The disciples respectfully stepped back. SR breezily and jovially greeted everybody in the central cluster. Loud and harsh, SR’s voice broke into occasional laughter. All the while he was staring around the room idiotically with a grimace-like smile on his face. Prof SR’s vacuous grimace is not to be commented upon and so also his loud laugh that spake the vacant mind. ( But who knows?)
Prof Sundar Rao had furthered many an academic career by dropping the necessary word at the necessary place. This was the reward he reserved for the faithful who faithfully did all his research and faithfully put his name in the research papers as the corresponding author. In case you do not know what this implies let me tell you. The corresponding author is the boss. But woe to any researcher who dared to differ from SR. Mercilessly he threw the person out in the metaphorical snow, relegating them to the fringes of academic society (his).
Back to the conference. Prof. Sundar Rao was going to deliver the key note address which he knew by heart as he had delivered it about eighteen times of which, six have been in the same venue. If ever he hesitated during his address, the paintings on the walls could help him out, since they also knew it by heart.
ReCognition was a subject in which Sundar Rao excelled. He could recognize at a glance all the great ones and all the ones who had to be ignored. He could spot at a glance a willing slave or a troublesome maverick. Not for nothing he had been the head of many institutions. In his long career he had killed – metaphorically speaking – many a promising scientist, thus making sure that his path was always lined with sycophants.
When Sundar Rao was ready, the conference began, though it was already an hour later than the stated time. No matter, SR had to greet all his cronies you see. As usual a sly sycophant (ss) gave the welcome address.
This was a well trained welcomer. He welcomed everybody, including the cool breeze from the air-conditioner. His welcome to SR was freely studded with words like most respected, most eminent, internationally (Maldives, Sri Lanka?) known. He stopped short of touching the great one’s feet and saying ‘Pranam’.
Then came the Director of the institute who owed his present position to long years of faithful service to SR. Naturally he tried to out do SS. With heroic effort he rose to the occasion and called forth all sorts of superlatives praising the great one. It seemed from his assertions that the sum total of all knowledge in the world resided in SR’s head. Oh, what a head! Bald and shining, perhaps due to the hair being blown away by the power of knowledge within, round and big since it was stuffed with so much knowledge, a face suffused with pride, (who would not be, given his position?). Bulbous eyes, staring out challengingly and to top it all, a big and powerful mouth which was soon going to thunder out the mysteries of the science of ReCognition.
Back to our man, the Director. Having done full justice to SR’s glory he crowned his efforts by placing a garland round the neck of the great one. Just in time, he restrained himself from touching his feet. The audience applauded, as Prof. SR moved to the microphone to deliver his well known keynote address. We don’t have to know what he said. They are available in the archives of institutions of A to J and from the years 1980 to present time. The beauty of it is that we can choose any one of these at random and get the pearls of wisdom.
The keynote address was followed by after note, by a faithful who delivered the vote of thanks which also had been said in the same hall many times. But not being of SR’s stature, this does not find a place in the archives. There quickly followed a series of presentations and not a moment too soon the morning session was over and lunch was announced.
There is our reporter going towards the counters where a sumptuous buffet lunch spread is seen, nervously clutching his lunch ticket. He wondered whether it was first class ticket or second class ticket and whether he would be permitted to take the Kashmiri Pulao or not. Remember the finance officer? Our reporter had heard that on occasion the finance officer had been known to snatch the very plate from the hands of an offending luncher and drive him forth like the angel Gideon did, with his flaming sword. Timidly he grabbed one ordinary looking Paratha, moved on to dal and Dum Alu. Became emboldened by not seeing any hatchet men of the finance officer, went on to Palak Paneer and becoming very cheeky indeed took the Kashmiri pulao and even went so far as to sample the ice cream. Exhausted with the mental and physical effort he slowly tottered back to a corner table and sat down.
After lunch the sessions reconvened. Prof. SR was still there, but not to speak or listen. He was there to sleep and snore and perchance to dream. He had put himself in a convenient posture in the front row so that he could stretch out his legs and since the neighbouring chair was empty he could put his head there. All this he did with aplomb. As the afternoon wore on, and speaker after speaker “ReCognised”, SR blissfully snored on, the snores providing a resonant background to the dull voices of the speakers.
Soon there was tea time, and somebody thoughtfully woke up ‘kumbakarna’ Rao and quickly led him to cakes, biscuits and tea lest he gobble up some human.
Our reporter is nowhere to be seen. May be he took powder as the American gangster would say. One presumes that he was too overwhelmed by all that he had seen and heard and rushed back to his office to collect his thoughts.
The post tea session was not to be graced by SR’s presence as he had to rush to Delhi where the next day he was going to keynote again. What he would say there, we know already, right? So, I leave you at this point to guess how the conference ended.
Thus Prof. Sundar Rao. And unlike Abou Ben Adhem – May his tribe never increase! Pray to the angels.