During these times of uncertainty and stress, the mind relaxes by suddenly harking into the secure past. The latest trigger was something that an online tutor did – I had bunked the last class and he said that I would have to cram in the topics of both the previous and the present ones into the time slot of 45 minutes. It was tough but I could only smile. It reminded me of Dr JK Das of the Delhi College of Engineering.

You know how it is – your heart is in the arts but you know in your heart of hearts that you will need to do a professional degree to earn a living. My dad made it abundantly clear that the good standard of living we maintained was upheld by the security of a monthly pay check and so I too would have to ensure the same in my turn. There was no question of any huge inheritance that would in his words, “enable me to grow a beard, row a boat down a river and write poems.” I knew whom he had in mind; remember we were then in Calcutta.

And so it was engineering for me. I went off to DCE and had a lovely time studying there. Those four years rank among the happiest periods of my life. Of the four educational institutions I studied in, two, namely Vidya Mandir and DCE were superb – great fun, with some education thrown in. The other two, and I don’t wish to name them here, were pathetic despite their great reputations.

Among those who taught us was Dr JK Das. Short and serious, he was a mimic’s delight. I can still recall him, rotating his wrist, which meant he was getting ready to write something on the blackboard. He had certain standard phrases – can you tell what were the two differences were? Or where is the difference is? And it was always ound rotor for wound rotor. But the man knew his electrical engineering and if years later I can still recall some of what I studied, it was due to the way he taught us.

There were others – one was raving mad and ought to have been locked up years earlier. Another was delightfully eccentric with a partiality to girls. There was a dandy in hennaed hair who each year lost his heart to one of the girl students (he just worshipped from afar) and gave her the maximum marks. There were many incompetents as well, some of whom shamelessly plugged mediocre text books they had written at us. But Dr Das was different – he was always to the point. He also never spent time unbending and discussing irrelevant topics. He kept to himself. Nobody could get close to him. And he did not ask us to buy some text book he had a cut in. I don’t think he wrote a book.

Dr Das taught us various subjects for two years, winding up in some style by getting us to design transformers and electric motors – we did it from scratch and producing drawings too. There was no CAD then. Early on under him we learnt he was not someone to trifle with. The summer was relentless in 1984 and one afternoon the whole class decided on a mass bunk. We stayed away – the day scholars went home and those of us in the hostels slept out the afternoon. Next day, on going to class we were in for a shock. The whole blackboard was filled with Dr JK Das’ writing. He appeared duly and informed us that all that he written there was what he would have taught in the previous class had we attended. And now, he would proceed with the day’s class under the assumption that he had covered the previous class for us.

There was no way the man could have covered all that he had claimed he would have done, during the course of 45 minutes. But there it was. You could not argue with him. The rest of the session was all Greek to us. And then we had to do a goodish bit of homework to make up. Laggards like me took even longer. For months onwards, if anyone asked a doubt he would say it was all covered in the class that we bunked! And so we never missed Jackal’s (as we called him) classes thereafter

I have another fond memory of him. I had been catapulted to Delhi from a very sheltered life in Calcutta and it took me pretty much the first two years to come to terms with managing by myself. My grades in those semesters were not edifying to say the least. I worked myself to the bone in the subsequent two and passed in the first class but it was clear that I would never make a great engineer. Dr JK Das must have found this out long before I did.

Anyway, in one of the term exams the man was invigilating. It was the height of winter and your hands never wrote anything for the first 15 minutes – so frozen they would be. The three hours ended and we were asked to submit our papers. A wail rose from one of the girls – she still needed time she said and began to cry.

JK Das was unmoved. “Just because you are a girl don’t think you can cry and wangle more time,” he growled. And then snatching the paper from her he added for good measure – “I don’t see why you make such a fuss. Look at that Sriram. I don’t think he will even pass and see how he is smiling and laughing as he leaves the hall.”

Anyway, all that was behind us in 1987 as we moved into the last term. Dr Das was not teaching us anything then. On the last day, I was pushed on to stage by the rest of the class and asked to do a mono act of all the teachers who had taught us. I was always a good mimic and it was a great success. The next day we had to collect our exam admit cards from Dr JK Das. When I went to his room he looked up – “So you imitated me? Come on do it now.”

I was terrified. But then the man was demanding it and so I went ahead. For the first and only time in my tenure at DCE I saw Dr JK Das laugh. Tears rolled down his eyes as he hooted with laughter. “Why ever did you take up engineering?” he asked. And with that we parted.

I got to know that he became the Head of the Department later and that he, along with Prof YVSR Sastry, another great teacher who was also a very mime-worthy character, gave many inputs in the design of the new mammoth DCE campus where it now functions as the Deltech University.

A great man.