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All There is to Learn About Life

All There is to Learn About Life

When life and a river teach you what engineering doesn’t. An engineer shares his experience of being trained for bliss post-retirement

by Joy (Sirshendu)

Industrial training during the summer breaks as part of engineering studies are supposed to prepare a student for professional life. In my case it went a step further and prepared me directly for blissful retirement.

It was a matter of chance that I happened to land up at Burn Standard Co. in Kolkata during the summer break of my second year in engineering. My original plan was to do the training at a very reputed firm with some of my friends. The plan fell through at the last moment and I was in a bit of a panic when thankfully I found one training slot at Burn Standard still available.

No one seemed to be interested in it. Doing the training with a group of friends would certainly have been a more enjoyable prospect but I had no choice at that late hour but to go solo. So one hot day in May found me at the gates of the factory feeling quite nervous and intimidated.

Burn Standard has a rich, centuries old history but at the time I went there, in the mid-90s, it was a sick unit. The reception I got when I showed up at the personnel department was like “really .. you couldn’t find any other place at all?? well now that you are here…”. Not very encouraging,

What I was hoping was that the next thing they would say would be“… just come after 30 days and get your certificate”. This was a very common practice in those days. Not the right and sincere thing to do but consider it against the prospect of being able to enjoy a month of vacation versus showing up for shifts every day, and good intentions don’t stand a chance.

But it was not to be. What they said instead was “… now that you are here you need to show up every day and clock your time if you want your certificate”. But the good part was that, no one was particularly bothered about what I did once I clocked in.

After completing the joining formalities my first discovery was that the fish curry lunch at the workers’ canteen at just two rupees was sumptuous and delicious. I wondered how the workers managed to go back to work after stuffing themselves so heartily.

The next day brought another stray soul from some other engineering college also keen to be trained for life by Burn Standard. I wasn’t there when he arrived at the personnel department but I can imagine their consternation at this sudden surge in their popularity. Luckily it ended with just the two of us, else it would have been a severe blow to their self-image of general hopelessness.

My fellow trainee turned out to be a really nice quiet chap. He had a very good reason for picking Burn Standard – he lived close by and was also hoping for a “just come back after a month” deal.

Anyway, there we were, the two of us with the prospect of spending a whole month in the sweltering heat, the dusty and noisy factory floors and the delightful respite of the canteen at lunchtime. We found it quite interesting in the beginning.

Burn Standard manufactures railway wagons and also took custom engineering orders. We could see some castings of astonishing complexity of design. There were some kind old workers who would deign to talk with us and explain stuff from time to time.

There was a wealth of knowledge and experience but what became a barrier was that the terms that they used to describe the work were all local and the process purely empirical. We could not connect anything to the terms and theory that was taught in our college.

The people who could perhaps have acted as the bridge, the engineers, were a jaded disinterested set with too much on their minds. So in about a couple of days we had just about had enough of hanging around the factory floor waiting for someone to notice us.

There was a bit of wilderness beyond the factory sheds – overgrown grass, carcasses of old rusted wagons, discarded parts here and there and then walking beyond all that a breach in the compound wall. And what a breach.

The wall was broken right on the side of the Hoogly river with the ground sloping steeply down to the water’s edge. A tree slanted precariously from the bank covering the area with its shade. At the foot of the tree were broken blocks from the wall which served as comfortable seats for us. This immediately became our favorite haunt and we spent hours and hours of our training just sitting there and watching time and river flow by.

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In front of us stretched the Hooghly river with Babu Ghat on the opposite side. We could see launches crossing to and fro all through the day. A newly introduced beautiful Catamaran (apparently of Australian make) used to be docked right opposite to the area where we sat and it was a pleasure to see it ply down river to Haldia and return.

The coming of the high tide on the river when the water from the sea rushes inland and the river flows in the opposite direction is a beautiful scene.

It used to be fun to guess which direction we would find the river flowing as we walked to our “workstation” by the river every morning. I did not see the actual tide coming in, but my friend did and he was ecstatic about it.

I remember feeling a pang of jealousy at that time. From then on till the end of the month I waited for the river and sea to do the right thing and even the score for me but it did not happen during my watch. My only consolation was that my friend also got the horrible experience of seeing a cadaver floating on the river.

When we sat by the river hour after hour I remember feeling that time will never pass, as if this was eternity. But time did pass and pretty quickly too. In between, my friend fell sick and for a week or so and on those days I had to do all the training by myself.

It was only later towards the end of the one-month period that we got to know that the place around the breach and the tree was well-known to be infested with snakes. Although luckily we had not encountered any snake we did not have the courage to go back after we learnt that.

So the last couple of days was again aimless roaming around the shop floors, hearing comments like “you two still here?” and counting the minutes to freedom. As I came out on the last day with the coveted certificate of completion my mind was already on to more exciting times ahead and the largely inconsequential one-month was soon forgotten.

But looking back now, the luxury of just watching a river flow with nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, and in quiet congenial company is nothing less than enchanting

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