I don’t exactly know, but let me tell you about some start-ups that occurred in the late nineteen sixties.
I ducked in my second year at IIT, so 1966-67 was a year that had to be gone over again. It started badly – before I could even come to the campus, my father informed me that his business investments had resulted in his becoming broke. There was a meagre pension he was getting, and the fees and mess bills would be beyond him. And since I had failed, I had to think about dropping out of IIT or see what could be done.
I came back to my room at IIT and analyzed. Was I going to pack up and leave, or was I going to find a way to get my financial requirements? The problem was only about paying for tuition fees, which at that time was fairly meagre, and mess bills, which were like hundred rupees per month. How do I earn about two hundred rupees a month to cover all the costs? And immediately, I hit upon the first job.
Those were the days when fifth year undergrads had to submit ‘home papers’ – a kind of thesis or project report, going into 40 or more pages, which all had to be typed, as at that time there were no computers and the like. If I could type eight or ten home papers, it would see me through for a while.
I got an old Remington type-writer from home to start on my new venture. In those days, clerical staff at the main building would type out the home papers, and charge seventy-five paise per page. And most students were dissatisfied, because all the formulae they had to insert in the home papers had superscripts and subscripts which the clerical staff would garble into a mess, and lead to retyping of pages, which of course had to be paid for.
I offered to type out home papers at fifty paise per page. The first couple of guys, one from civil and another from chemical, helped me a lot – when they saw that their superscripts and subscripts came right the first time, they did enough ‘dindora peeting’ on my behalf in their class for me to have enough business for the season. In fact, I ended up typing a lot of home papers for three years.
One benefit of the home paper business is that I had to read through and type out home papers of almost all departments, which gave an excellent exposure to all branches of engineering, much better than all that I learnt in class subsequently!
The home paper season ended by November, and I was again staring down the barrel. A Science Congress was being held at IIT in December, where delegates would come from all over the country and get accommodated in the hostels. I volunteered to help, and was there to receive the guests coming to Hostel V. One by one they came, and went up to their allotted rooms, and one by one they came back, with requests about where to buy combs, toothpaste, and the like. By that evening, the first ‘canteen’ was set up in Hostlel V, where snacks like ham sandwiches, could be had, as well as all the odds and ends such as combs and toothbrushes. My recovery through the canteen business over the December vacation was good enough to take my finances forward, but there were a lot of left-over stocks. I donated these to one of the mess servants, and I asked him to run the canteen on his own from then on, and a lot of students patronized the canteen. Helping someone else set up in a business is an unalloyed joy. It certainly gives more pleasure than all the money you can make for yourself!
I used to be a fairly good student, attending class regularly, and taking copious notes on foolscap pages that I neatly filed away. The next business that I got into used my laborious notes, which I now cut into stencils, and printed copies of it, and sold to my classmates. It started with Logic and Ethics, and then went on to Strength of Materials, IC Engines, and a whole gamut of subjects. This became my source of livelihood for quite some time.
My good friend and room-mate Chandru Chainani ducked in the third year, and asked me for the stencils of the lecture notes, as ducking gave him a new batch to sell the notes to! Chandru was an exceptionally good student, and very sharp, but unfortunately he took close to ten years to graduate. I always wonder whether he took that long because of any problems, or because he was too busy selling the notes that he took from me!
My good friend Mohan Dalal was the Hostel Secretary at that time. He came up to me and asked me if I could produce a Hostel Magazine. I was game for it, but Mohan had restrictions on it – the magazine had to have two columns per page, and each column had to be fully justified (i.e., sharp edge on both left and right). I agreed to that.
And that is how The Dabbler came into being. I had to cut stencils for each page. Which meant that I had to write each line of each column, count the number of characters in it, and add spaces in between to make that line justified, then type it without any error on the stencil sheet. And then take the stencils and get two hundred and fifty front-back copies made. And all this, every alternate week, as the magazine was a fortnightly. (It had to be fortnightly, because on alternate weeks, I was working on the production and distribution of class notes!) Four foolscap pages of this is no mean achievement! And of course, I had to compose all the stories – no one contributed any articles! I started a serial article, which became some kind of a hit – it was by ‘Poonam Kevalramani’, and it was mostly about her escapades at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
Little did I know what I was in for… Even before the second article of the series was published, there was a line of eight IIT studs outside my door – all wanting to have a date with Poonam! Fortunately, all of them were final year students, so that they bugged me only till the end of the year. Along with inventive articles for the magazine, I had to invent a lot of excuses on behalf of the imaginary Poonam why she could not have a date with these persistent gentlemen!
One of our hostel-mates used to sell subscriptions of LIFE magazine, which was then one of the top-rated magazines along with TIME. He had an unfortunate habit of pinching things, and he pinched my Remington typewriter. By then, of course, I had finished my career as a hostel typist, so it did not hinder me in any way – I just felt sorry I could not give that old faithful a thankyou tap for paying for my IIT education.
The Dabbler survived for a while. After me, Janak Daftari took over the publishing of it. I lost touch with the hostel and the magazine, until I went on a Hostel Visit forty years after passing out – and lo and behold! The Dabbler was still running, though by now it had morphed into an annual issue.
I felt really good that a magazine I had started ran for so many years! Unfortunately, a few years later I learnt that the magazine had stopped getting published. At least it lasted till almost the end of the print medium era, and it even outlasted LIFE magazine!