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On the memories and anxieties of a convocation ceremony

IT’S CONVOCATION time again and as the invitations start coming in, I feel that familiar lump in my throat. At the institute that I am associated with, the convocation takes place on the weather-beaten but majestic, red-brick Louis Kahn Plaza that has seen over 60 batches of bright-eyed young men and women "walk the ramp", so to speak, in their fancy dress robes, on top of the world, even if just for today — because tomorrow they will be at the bottom of the heap of the real world! Their mixed emotions of anticipation and trepidation are so palpable, it makes me nervous just to breathe in their vicinity. And I really empathise with the bemusement on their parents' faces, laced with pride, at this new avatar of the offspring that they are yet to get to know. My heart goes out to the graduating PhD students, whose slog at last comes to an end, but they still need to figure out what the market for their knowledge is in the "just do it, don't think too much" world of business.

And I always watch most nervously, as the young women walk across the increasingly pitted and scarred brick floor of the plaza, unpractised in the art of managing sari, robe and high heels, all at once. I pray with a fervour, please don't let them trip, their batchmates will be reminding them and each other of it even when they are all old and doddering. I speak with experience — when I was at the institute, our group, running short on time and long on laziness, filled up some of the questionnaires ourselves, sitting in the canteen. For our efforts, we ended up with a C or a D and the matter ended there. Except that I then went on to join the market research industry. As luck would have it, one of my clients, 20 years later, was my batchmate and, worse, one of the project group members too. He waited with a wicked smile till I had finished my proposal along with my team and then, with a straight face, he said, "We are very concerned about the quality of data collection. Could you tell us a little bit about where you personally stand on the subject?"

As they file by the dais, I wonder which of them will blaze trails of what kind — I have seen successful CEOs, people who have given it all up to run social enterprises or go into politics, people who have gone into government or academia; and I love the 25th reunions, when they all regress to the loud noisy days of the dorm, and when all are equal, and when teachers, both favourite and unfavourite, are remembered.

I am only a part-time, one-term, one-course-a-year teacher, though I have been at it for over 25 years. Each year, as my flesh gets weaker and the preparation harder, I swear that I will quit — but my undoing is always seeing a beaming face at an airport or elevator saying, "Ma'am you taught me", and the sheer pleasure of hearing how well their life journey has progressed.

I wonder though if I made the kind of impression on them that some of my teachers made on me. One of them, a wonderfully smart but totally awe inspiring lady who taught us maths, showed up once at my hostel room at night, waving a paper of mine, saying, "You are otherwise so bright, please explain to me why you turn in work like this." And proceeded to walk me through every line of the problem. Another one, who taught me and who I teach with, has given up a lifetime of weekends dealing with project groups at their argumentative best, wearing them down using the most exhausting Socratic methods, until they saw the light or at least agreed to go back and reflect a little.

One of my teachers used to say that the best guru dakshina a student can give a teacher is to surpass him. He said that by that token, his students had repaid him many times over. And yes, that is my story too, and that's why I have a lump in my throat every convocation.

Rama Bijapurkar is the author of We Are Like That Only And A Never-Before World: Tracking the evolution of consumer India