Vinod Ganesh is popularly known as MENSA, in Chennai quizzing and other circles. He attained his MENSA membership sometime in 2003-04. The exam (yeah, since it’s a high IQ society, you need to pass an exam to join) was sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, and the results arrived during Saarang 2004. Thinking back, there is a possibility that the nickname could have been mine (though “Wimpy” was well-established by then). I’d also taken the same exam on the same day as Vinod did, and had cracked it. It remains one of the turning points in my life.

I was studying Computer Science at IIT Madras, and was in my final year of the course. Most of the class wanted to go to the US to do their masters, and along came a rumour (possibly substantiated given how universities in America work) that membership of elite clubs such as MENSA was a good bullet point that might enable admission, and offers of aid. Most of my classmates had signed up enthusiastically. The rumour had misled me, in the sense that I had assumed there was little to the exam apart from a bullet point for foreign apps, and had stayed away.

It was a Saturday, and the entrance test was going to happen over three sessions. MENSA entrance is one of those tests where they “recycle” question papers – the papers are taken back at the end of the test, and given out to the next batch. The nature of questions allows them to do this – they are mostly pattern recognition, and are quite hard to “describe” in the absence of the question paper. Sometimes someone else who took the test prior to you would have made marks on the question paper, but it is best you disregard them, for you never know how well they’ve done.

Friends who had written the test in the first batch told me that it was a tough exam. That it was all about pattern recognition and stuff. They also mentioned that for the third session, seats weren’t filled up and they were still taking on-the-spot registrations. I think the entrance fee was a hundred bucks or so, and I made a spur of the moment decision to write the test.

IIT was a hard time for me. For most of my time there, my confidence was at an all-time low. Except for one term, I never did well in academics. Extra curricular activities also floundered, and I would find myself wasting phenomenal amounts of time. I had developed a fear that I wasn’t good enough, and it was feeding onto itself and making things worse. Given my indifferent performances both in class and outside, my peers, too, didn’t have too much respect for me (IIT is strictly meritocratic that way, I must tell you), and that only contributed to my self-doubt. Given that I was going to graduate soon, I knew I needed a stimulus to break out of my rut, and so far hadn’t figured a way out.

MENSA, the exam that I had enrolled for in the last minute, unexpectedly proved to provide the stimulus. It turned out that in my entire Computer Science class (most of whom were double digit rankers in the IIT-JEE, and half of whom had better CGPAs than me), I was the only person to have qualified the MENSA test. I remember a couple of others coming close. Most, including a number of the top rankers in class, hadn’t even come close to qualifying. If my confidence levels were higher earlier, I might have yelled out a “howzzat”. In the event, I didn’t require it, since the success in the exam was enough of a stimulus for me to do well in CAT, which followed, and generally break out of the rut.

In the event, I ended up not joining MENSA. I got a letter asking me to come for a welcome party, where I had to pay a fee to become a lifetime member of MENSA Chennai. I knew I was going to move out of Chennai in about three months’ time, and I thought it would be a waste to become a life member of the Chennai chapter. I remember writing to the Bangalore chapter after I moved back, but the responses were vague, and I never joined. That letter from MENSA which declares my success in the examination, though, sits proudly in my “certificates folder”. And for some three years hence, the fact that I had cracked the MENSA entrance test had adorned my resume.

I’ve never been an “RG” (IIT term for someone who doesn’t hesitate to pull others back in order to get ahead of them), but in this one situation, I had taken great pleasure in my classmates’ failure to qualify for MENSA. For a good reason, I think, since that was responsible in setting me off on a successful run that would last close to two years.

Bangalore Book Festival

So today I made my way to Gayatri Vihar in the Palace Grounds to visit the Bangalore Book Festival, on its last day. It was interesting, though a bit crowded (what would you expect on the last day of an exhibition? and that too, when it’s a Sunday?). I didn’t buy much (just picked up two books) given the massive unread pile that lies at home. However, there was much scope for pertinent observations. Like I always do when I have a large number of unrelated pertinent observations, I’ll write this in bullet point form.

  • There were some 200 stalls. Actually, there might have been more. I didn’t keep count, despite the stalls having been numbered. Yeah, you can say that I wasn’t very observant.
  • All the major bookshops in Bangalore barring the multicity ones had set up shop there. I don’t really know what they were doing there. Or were they just trying to capture the market that only buys in fairs? Or did they set up stall there just to advertise themselves?
  • It seems like a lot of shops were trying to use the fair to get rid of inventory they wanted to discard. All they had to do was to stack all of this on one table and put a common price tag (say Rs. 50) on every book in that collection, and it was enough to draw insane crowds
  • One interesting stall at the fair had been set up by an online self-publishing company. I’ll probably check them out sometime next year when I might want to publish a blook. Seems like an interesting business model they’ve got. Print on demand!
  • I also met the guys at the fair. Once again, they were there for advertising themselves. Need to check them out sometime. Given the kind of books I buy, I think online is the best place to get long tail stuff.
  • There was an incredibly large number of islamic publishing houses at the fair! And have you guys seen the “want qur an? call 98xxxxxxxx for free copy” hoardings all over the city? Wonder why the Bajrang Dal doesn’t target those
  • There was large vernacular presence at the fair. I remember reading in the papers that there was a quota for Kannada publishers, but there was reasonable presence for other languages also, like Gult, Tam, Mellu, Hindi
  • A large number of stalls were ideology driven. Publishing houses attached to cults had set up stalls, probably to further the cause of their own cult. So there was an ISKCON stall, a Ramakrishna Mutt stall, a Ramana Maharshi stall, etc.
  • Attendance at most of these niche stalls was quite thin, as people mostly crowded the stalls being run by bookstores in order to hunt for bargains. Attendance was also mostly thin at publisher-run stalls, making me wonder why most of these people had bothered to come to the fair at all.
  • I saw one awesomely funny banner at the place. It was by “Dr Partha Bagchi, the world leader in stammering for last 20 years” or some such thing. Was too lazy to pull out my phone and click pic. But it was a masterpiece of a banner
  • Another interesting ideological publisher there was “Leftword books”. Their two sales reps were in kurtas and carrying jholas (ok I made the latter part up). And they were sellling all sorts of left-wing books. Wonder who funds them! And they were also selling posters of Che for 10 bucks each
  • I wonder what impact this fair will have on bookstores in Bangalore in the next few days. Or probably it was mostly the non-regular book buyers who did business at the fair and so the regulars will be back at their favourite shops tomorrow.

I bought two books. Vedam Jaishankar’s Casting A Spell: A history of Karnataka cricket (I got it at Rs. 200, as opposed to a list price of Rs 500) and Ravi Vasudevan’s “Making Meaning in Indian Cinema”.