Bosses and How To Survive Them – Part 46: The Useful Boss
Amitabha Banerjee 14 October 2022
Bosses are often given nicknames which sometimes stick for decades. Some nicknames are innocuous, some are derogatory and some can be quite nice.

Our teachers at IIT, who were our bosses, were no exception. Many nicknames had been handed down over generations of IITians, for example:

- “Jig” Das – a Mech Engg professor who specialised in designing jigs for assembling structures
- “Pop” Mitra, for his paternal air
- “Chota-mota”, a lecturer whose girth rivalled his height – 4’11”

The most unfortunate nickname was the one given to a Maths teacher – UL Rao aka 'Use Less Rao'.

Prof Rao used to teach 'dynamics of a particle' (DoP), all about the motion of a terrestrial body under the influence of various forces. It was full of very complicated equations based on complex differential calculus. Everyone in second year, regardless of which stream of engineering he was studying, had to study DoP.

Our textbook had been written by one SL Loney more than a hundred years ago. There were many chapters, each containing a theory portion followed by a number of problems which had to be solved using the preceding theory.

None of us had any clue about how to solve the problems.

Mr Loney (some alleged it was a Miss Loney) had taken pity on his unknown students and had published a book named ‘Key to Loney’s DoP’, containing the solutions to these problems. Unfortunately, the key was almost as complex as the book itself.

The solutions provided in Loney’s key skipped six or seven steps at a time, and would tersely say “Therefore, substituting [email protected]&%\$* for &*\$#@9 we get XYZ.” Nobody could work out the intervening missing steps and Loney’s DoP problems remained almost as obscure as before. Rumour had it that an enterprising geek had produced a book named ‘Key to the Key to Loney’s DoP’ in which the missing steps had been spelt out. But that book was never found and we remained in the dark.

As you may well imagine, very early on, most of us gave up on ever mastering DoP. The predominant line of thought was—there is no hope in hell of understanding all this stuff. It is better to spend the time on other subjects. In any case, the exam paper would have five questions of 20 marks each, split into a theory question for 10 marks and a problem for 10 marks. As long as you could mug up all the theory you would get 50 marks—Pass—even if you didn’t solve a single problem.

Prof Rao didn’t help much either. His normal style of teaching was to enter the class, take roll call, and then turn to the blackboard and start writing complicated differential calculus equations aimed at solving Loney’s problems. He would never turn around to look at the students during the entire class and, when the period ended, he would leave the class without looking left or right. This characteristic having been established, people started sneaking out of the class as soon as roll call was over.

A week before the exam, Prof Rao suddenly behaved most uncharacteristically.

A few minutes after roll call, by which time all but eight of the 60 students had disappeared, he turned around, looked at the remaining eight (which happened to include me) and sighed.

“I know you call me useless,” he began.

There was stunned silence.

“I also know that you find this subject very difficult. Therefore, I thought I would give you the solutions to the problems that will be coming in the exam. But since most of the class has left already……..”

All eight of us erupted almost simultaneously.

“No Sir, No Sir, please Sir!!”

“You are very useful, Sir!”

Our fervent pleas softened Prof Rao. He relented, and proceeded to write out five problems, and their solutions, on the blackboard. We copied feverishly.

IITians who came after our batch have been subjected to a monster called 'relative grading', namely, your grade is determined not by your marks, but by how well or badly you have done relative to the rest of the class. If you score only 55% while everyone else gets even less, you will get an A+, but even if you score 90% your grade might be D if everyone else scores above 90%. This makes everyone reluctant to help anyone else because his success might lead to your own failure.

But we lived under the good old system of 'absolute grading'. 80% was 80%, no matter whether everyone else scores 90% or 50%. Therefore, everyone was happy to help others.

The news spread like wildfire through the entire second year batch. By evening, each and every chap had copied the five problems and their solutions.

The results of the DoP exam raised a lot of eyebrows amongst the faculty. All 800 students had scored either 88 or 89 out of 100. This pattern blew all formulae of normal distribution to smithereens. How come?

You can guess why. Everyone had mugged up all the theory and the five problems disclosed by Prof Rao. The theory portions of the paper were 'no brainers'. Out of the five problems, four matched and one didn’t. Nobody even tried to answer the fifth problem. Depending on how perfect one’s mugging had been, one lost one or two marks in disgorging the answers—hence the 88 or 89.

Prof Rao had proved himself to be useful.

(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 (until Covid, that is), playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)