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.

Anecdotes from school: Copying In exams

A couple of not-so-hilarious incidents from our pre-board exams in 10th standards. It being election year (1998) we had 2 rounds of pre-boards instead of the usual one. The formation in the classroom was interesting – we sat normally two to a desk, and there were two sets of question papers. Since these were pre-boards and not boards, many of us didn’t really take them seriously. I must say that the entire set of exams was a riot. After all, it was the last thing that we did in that wonderful school (the school didn’t have 11th and 12th, so all of us had to shift out).

The biology section of the science exam contained a question on habit-forming substances. Something on the lines of “what are habit forming substances and why are they bad”. A certain mahaanubhaavva thought he didn’t know the answer. Or maybe he didn’t understand the question properly. So using a set of excellently-planned cheat codes, he managed to communicate to the guy in the next row (note that he couldn’t ask the person next to him since she had a different question paper) about this question.

The guy in the next row wasn’t such a stud in dumb-charades, and decided to use standard gestures rather than excellently-worked-out codes. He wanted to show booze in as intuitive way as possible. Putting his fist near his mouth, and with a clever movement of his thumb, he indicated drink. Sitting behind him, I thought this was excellent for someone not well-versed in Dumb Charades. Unfortunately, people well-versed in Dumb Charades tend to think too much. In went the answer paper “the primary habitat forming substance is water. It is bad because people and animals can fall and drown in it”. He must count himself lucky he got the hall ticket.

This incident has had far-reaching consequences. The mahaanubhaava who didn’t know the answer was so traumatised by the incident that he is yet to taste alcohol. He is afraid of drowning in it – that dreaded habitat forming substance.


One day later was the social sciences paper. Unfortunately I wasn’t part of the Dumb Charades study group, so I hadn’t been introduced to the art of communicating the question number across the class. I realized that with my skills I was unable to even communicate across the aisle. I wasn’t even as good as the guy in front of me who put his fist to his mouth. So it had to be the cute girl next to me who had to help me out with the question that I didn’t have a clue of. If I remember right, she was partially trained in Dumb Charades.

What I didn’t realize was that you are not supposed to copy if you are seated in the first row – it is too easy to get caught. Moreover, if you are in one of the middle columns (like I was) you are in the direct line of vision of the invigilator. So it is never a good idea to copy. But then, I’d never copied in my life, and I knew this was the last opportunity for me to make amends. So what if I didn’t know the codes? So what if I was seated on the first row? So what if the cute girl next to me had a different set of questions? This was my last chance to profitably copy, and I had to take it.

I usually pride myself on being good at eye contact. I pride myself on the fact that I can communicate anything to someone of the opposite gender by just looking deeply into her eyes. I know that if I were to copy from a girl who was seated in FRONT of me, I could have done it with just eye contact. Unfortunately, the only person seated across me and looking towards me was the invigilator. Obviously I couldn’t ask her the answer?

The rules of copying state that it is always the dumber person who copies from the smarter person. The class topper never copies. If he were a copycat, his topping could never have been this sustainable. By knownig the two names, you can easily know who is the copier and who is the copied. Things always go by the rules. So if you try to invertĀ  these rules, it is usually easy to fool the invigilator. And so forth.

So unlike the mahaanubhaava who hadn’t understood the question, I didn’t get caught for the attempt to copy. No one threatened to not give me my hall ticket – that honour went to the cute girl who had been sitting next to me. I didn’t do well in my social science pre-boards – I hadn’t been able to get the answer from the benchmate – she had got caught for copying from me before that. Despite now knowing the codes, and having zero experience in this department, I had played my cards well. I never repeated this experiment. Even if I wnated to, I think I’d’ve never found a counterparty.