Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Black Calico bound textbooks

When I was at school, my father developed an ingenious, almost patentable way, to tamper proof my textbooks. First, he would place a cardboard sheet on top of my books, drill tiny holes along the edges and stitch the books with the cardboard. He would then append a layer of black calico on top of these sheets and let it dry for a day. The usual brown covers would go on top of this calico layer. Then came the labels after which my father would use transparent plastic covers as the final layer of protection. This was a back breaking job and my father would spend two three days on this while I waltzed in and out of the house supervising the operations with insightful remarks such as "Oh, not that green dinosaur label on my Maths book! I was saving it for Science".

Now, one would wonder why my father invested so much time on my books. I am sure much revered documents like the original copy of the Indian Constitution or why, even the Magna Carta would probably not have four layered covers. At this point, I need to elucidate my mother's beliefs on the Indian educational system. To keep it short, she didn't believe in it. This meant I occasionally popped in and out of school for writing a test or for a quiz or when I had to go to the library to check out my Enid Blytons for that week and that was it. I was at school hardly three times a week and I very rarely went to classes thanks to the quizzes. This methodology worked wonder on my social skills, of course, but I loved it when I was at school. My mother would rather have me at home reading a novel than go to school and be bored all day.

My school didn't mind my erratic attendance because my grades were always super good and frankly, they didn't have a choice as they couldn't really complain to my parents. I suppose it was better not having me around rather than getting caustic post cards from my mother pointing out flaws in their teaching methodology.

Tangents apart, this meant I never really attended any classes and learnt most of the stuff by myself. My mother coached me until 5th grade (to see that I was actually doing something) and my father had to help me a lot with Math well into my high school. This also meant I really had to read the textbooks myself, multiple times- not just the questions at the back of the lesson, but every word inside. As much as she did not believe in trivial things such as attendance, my mother used to go Nazi on me when it came to marks.

My mother would advise me to consider my books like yet another paperback and finish them in the summer holidays so that I had the entire year to goof around. Apparently, this is what they used to do when they were kids and which is apparently how my uncles aced everything they ever did. I used to point out the flaw in her otherwise impeccable logic that I was anyway planning to goof around all year and books were not going to stand in my way.

When the tests loomed before me, I had a ritual - For some unfathomable reason I would watch my books carefully for a week or two. I guess it was more to acclimatize my visual senses to the mere existence of these books. Two days before the test, after a lot of maternal insistence and revoked reading privileges, I would render a melancholic moan not unlike that of our friend Myrtle. I would sniff at the book suspiciously, look at the print size, admire at my father's neat stitches and then decide to take a break. Post the "break", I would potter around filling ink in my pens, getting my scented erasers out and arranging my pencil box.

At this point, my mother would have that vein throbbing dangerously on her forehead which would hurriedly drive me back to my desk. After opening the book to say, "Classification of animal kingdom", I would sigh and count the number of pages till the end, hold the pages between my thumb and forefinger to gauge the thickness and utter one more moan. This is when my mom would go bananas, snatch the book off my hand and throw it across the room telling me, not in subtle terms, what a waste of her time I was.

I would sullenly retrieve the book and read the damned chapter on how the members of Phylum Coelenterata procured food and reproduced. If all went well, the books would lose their plastic shield in a month and be reduced to the bare calico in 3 months. In three months, all my books looked uncannily like the book of judgement what with the gloomy black calico portending a year full of tests. Books before the tamper proof era had to be replaced three times in a year which is why this rigorous protection mechanism was established. One would ask why my books were not hard bound - that's because I refused to carry such heavy bound books to school, even for the meagre 2-3 times per week and my parents loved me so much that they had to invent a lighter weight option.

While at college, I would happily walk into Ukkadam shops with my syllabus book and get the cheap Prentice Hall (for sale only in the Indian subcontinent) books while my father paying happily for the books, like he always had. I never used xeroxes like my fellow CITians did because I needed those big prints on off-white sheets and the book had to feel voluminous enough in my hand. Spiral bound xeroxes with their deathly pallor and tiny prints put me off more than the drab VLSI content in them - not to mention the unpleasant feeling of spiral coil poking me at unexpected moments.

At college, I again had a ritual. I used to stack up all my books in a huge pile and beam at the prospect of knowledge I was to glean from them that semester. I would then read the preface scanning for signs of witty remarks. I would then put the book next to me on the bed and sleep partially on it for a week to get used to the feeling. In this period, they would serve as a laptop stand, you know, as a heat dissipating agent.

One such stack in my final semester

In short, when it comes to text books, I am a tough nut to crack. No one moans and groans like I do when it comes to reading books that are plain textbookish in their own old fashioned way. I relish interesting material, interactive lectures and witty books-  stuff I can laugh at, like Tanenbaum's Operating Systems, Computer Networking and this other Electronics book. This is why, after a lot of failed attempts at conventional reading, I had to order a copy of what is called as "A cartoon guide to statistics".  It is good they have a clientele like me who like to consume knowledge through pictures. Reminds me of the good old days of calico books and dangerously throbbing veins on my mother's forehead. This is also a good reason to completely switch to Coursera and Udacity which is probably the best kind of education I have had. Really, I had tears in my eyes after I watched classes from this Calculus class.

P.S: I started this out as a tribute to world book day but ended up meandering quite a bit and had to change the title :)