Thursday, November 12, 2009

Learning Trades

For the first three or four semesters we had to take workshop classes to build purported hands-on experience. The real intent was to deny you an afternoon nap.

Many of the workshop foremen were in on this cruel conspiracy. Short Cock was one among them. A forensic specimen for the short-man syndrome, he settled his scores at the workshop. Anyone present would remember the session where he lifted his head to look past the students gathered around him, point at the back and snarl: You! Get off that stool! The crowd parted to reveal Alex, the tallest student, at six feet three inches. Short Cock shrank impossibly further into his shoes, as the laughter poured in.

We had workshops in smithy, carpentry, fitting, lathes and milling, foundry and welding. The fitting shop brings back the worst memories, with its dreaded “channel” exercise. You were given a U-shaped iron channel, four inches long and about three inches high, whose raised sides had to be filed down with a hand-file – down to a flat plate. This might sound innocuous, but I urge you to wait till you do the numbers.

On a good day, each stoke of a sharpened file would shave off about one micron of metal. Now, many of the files had worn teeth. Moreover, in any given Madras afternoon, at least half your strokes would lack true commitment. So if you accounted for all this and resigned yourself to working at roughly the rate of your heartbeat, you could have yourself that flat plate in about seven years. The routine came straight out of the Gulag. It had no other purpose but to break you down.

The simplest way to beat the system was to use the edge of your file to work multiple deep grooves into the raised sides, before using the flat face again to fervently even them out. Of course, this innovation was forbidden – no surprise there! If discovered, you were handed a brand new channel and life started all over again in the dump. This happened to me and the sheer depravity of the ordeal uncurled my hair for three whole days.

The exercise at the welding shop was to put down a weld bead along a groove between two metal plates, to fuse them together. It looked fatuously simple when the instructor demonstrated it. First, he would thrust out a face protector, like a gladiator approaching a lion. Peering through its tiny filter, he would point a long electrode towards the beginning of the groove, stopping dead 3 millimeters from the metal, just in time to start up a beautiful electric arc. In one straight smooth pass over the intended seam, he would deposit one straight smooth weld, stepping back to leave the plates cleanly jointed and parallel. Voila!

Then it was your turn. When you first peer through the face protector, you see absolutely nothing. Nada! You then stagger towards the table, dangling the electrode from your fingers like a depleted bottle of rum. Hold the electrode too far away from the metal and you’ll never see an arc; hold it too close and it will sickeningly stick itself onto the metal plate, killing any arc that might have mercifully started.

If you could hold your hand, rock steady, between 2.9 and 3.1 millimeters from a flat plate while looking through an X-ray sheet, I’d say you got it licked. But failure got so predictable that if you heard anyone say Fuck!, you knew he had just gotten his rod stuck. At the end of this inevitable lose-lose situation, what you had in front of you were two metal plates stuck unpredictably together, like Siamese twins.

You learned a lot about your classmates and where they would wind up, by just watching them in the workshop. Some were naturally gifted. Skilled with their hands, they finished their models true and fast and had enough time to help out the losers. In time, they would become leaders of men. I helped too, in my own way. When the roll call was called out, I would squeak out a muffled YesSir to cover for a friend napping at the hostel. I should have quit right then and taken up ventriloquism.

Some of the guys were cheats. They would scour the back rooms, looking for previously completed models that could be reconditioned and passed off as their own. Most of them would make it to the trading floors of Wall Street.

A few were perfectionists who would work up a lather even in the writhing Madras heat. I remember watching one such at the welding shop. He just couldn’t come to terms with his genetic inability to lay down a weld. The damn rod just kept getting obstinately stuck onto the plate, like a magnetic doorknob that got too close. Throwing away his face protector, he confronted the arc with naked eyes and poisonous intent. I didn’t stay long enough to see what happened, but he did indeed become a world famous computer scientist and inventor.

My seven year old daughter will be welding bare-eyed this summer.


  1. So who was the brave soul with the welding iron?

    - Amar

  2. At the end of the day, Short Cock was a good soul. To make sure you passed the "quiz" at the end of the carpentry rotation, he would give you the answer before the question: "This is a benjwise. What do you use to hold the sample in place?" "Bench vice." "Good, you pass."

  3. The words Goodman and Bastard File must be mentioned here.
    I was one of those that quite enjoyed workshop (other than the filing). Look what I grew up to be ...

  4. We must mention that for most of us workshop was the only time in our campus life we wore leather shoes.

    Well some were blessed to join the Core and subjected to sidy subs tortures on an otherwise fine Saturday morning. I recollect on our first day in NCC class wearing heavy armoured uniform almost half the class fainted.

  5. A Short-Cock story (alleged): Come Onam (or some such thing) he would hit upon all the 1-st years in Alak to buy tickets. (Most would run from their rooms - but I would make sure I bought one, given my poor wkshp skills). So he was supposed to have been asked why he or his Association needed all the money. SC allegedly quipped: It's for Onam, you know - not to marry my daughter and study my son.