A Hostel for the Girls
The reader must now be wondering about the history of Poo and Muthu. How did they get together and why did they split up? This backstory is intimately connected with the history behind the construction of Opal, so allow me to backpedal to the year 1981, when the following conversation took place in the principal’s room between the principal; Mrs. Meenakshi Radhakrishnan, English professor, and the principal’s consultant on the girl students’ matters; and Dr. Laloo Prakash of the Mechanical Engineering department. (I have been able to recreate the meetings in the principal’s room and put together this narrative thanks to my friendship with Sambamurthy, the principal’s peon, who was an avid chess enthusiast and friend.)
Principal: “Meenakshi, I’m worried about the accommodation we’re providing our girl students. I fear it’s like the black hole of Calcutta for them in the staff quarters, or rapidly getting like it. Are they comfortable there?”
Meenakshi: “Oh, they don’t ask for much, sir. They’re away from home, and they have each other’s company. They’re having a gala time away from the parental eye. It’s not the height of comfort in there, but it’s not intolerable either. They’re adjusting. I think they’re just fine.”
Principal: “That may well be the current situation, but I’m thinking ahead about how it’ll be a few years later. A visionary must plan ahead. I’ve studied the enrollment data, and the trend is clear. We can expect a sharp increase in the intake of girls in the next few years. And the houses in the staff quarters won’t do!”
Meenakshi: “True, I’d never have thought it possible, but it looks as though more and more girls are opting for engineering. In my days [faraway look in her eyes], it was unheard of. Girls were girls then; they studied home science or literature or history and got married soon after. And the clothes they wear nowadays! Sir, I don’t know what this generation is coming to!”
The principal refused to be side-tracked.
“I suggested constructing a girls hostel in a syndicate meeting. Most saw the wisdom of the move, but a vocal minority is putting up stiff resistance. They say the money could be spent on more worthy projects, and that the staff quarters can accommodate the increase in numbers. They even almost suggested that girls had no business studying engineering, and that their intake could be restricted.”
Here he looked pointedly at Meenakshi. She felt it was an accusing look.
“Sir, I’m all in favor of girls in engineering; it’s just that –“
The principal cut her off. He was fuming. He brought his fist crashing down on the table.
“I will build this hostel come what may! I will not allow a group of retrograde misogynists to derail my progressive plans!”
He turned to Dr. Laloo Prakash, who was wondering why he had been summoned to this meeting.
“This is where you come in, my dear Laloo. I’m relying on you to prove beyond doubt that a new hostel is necessary.”
Laloo shifted uneasily in his seat. He didn’t want to get involved in this politically charged controversy.
“Err … how can I do that? I’m only a mechanical …”
The principal cut him off.
“We have the statistical projections of the female student population increase from the math department, the extrapolations based on the Ramanujan distribution and Bayesian inference. My small-minded opponents wish to pack the girls into houses like sardines, and will turn my beautiful campus into a refugee camp if they have their way. Here’s what I want you to do. Establish scientifically how many students a toilet can comfortably serve. There must be an upper limit, and you’re going to find it! Throw all the math and science you can at the problem. It’ll have to be a multi-disciplinary effort involving particle dynamics, fluid mechanics, hydrology, metabolic rates, operations research, etc. Tell me whatever resources you need, and I’ll give them to you.”
Laloo’s jaw dropped.
“But, sir, can’t we just look at the boys hostels as an example?”
The principal’s fist descended forcefully on the table again.
“No rules of thumb for one of the premier engineering colleges in the country! I want hard science! I want that magic number, the upper limit for a toilet! My hunch is that we have crossed that limit already, in which case I’ll table the research at a syndicate meeting and push my proposal for a new hostel through. Who will argue with the science? Certainly not those reactionary old fogies!”
The principal’s face softened.
“Besides, I hand-picked you as one of the brightest young minds we have. Don’t let me down. Do the research and write it up in a paper, and I’ll see that it’s published in the leading international journals. Nobody has attacked this problem before; I’ve checked the literature.”
Mr. Laloo Prakash weakened, and then surrendered. The carrot dangled was irresistible, especially for an ambitious young academic bent on advancing his fledgling career.
Sensing an opening, the principal drove home his advantage.
“In fact, the upper limit you come up with can be framed as a law, and I already have given it a name. It’ll revolutionize the workings of hostels throughout the world, especially in developing countries with scarce resources that have to be optimized. Laloo, you’ll be famous! Especially because we’ll name the law after you”
Laloo was wringing his hands in gratitude.
“That’s so generous of you, sir. What will you call the law?”
The principal’s expression suddenly changed. A pink flush appeared on his face. His lips began twitching. Meenakshi, through long association with her boss, knew the symptoms well and braced herself.
“We’ll call it — Laloo’s Loo Law! Laloo’s Loo Law! Laloo’s Loo Law!”
The principal now exploded in laughter. Meenakshi, fighting against her natural womanly restraint, suddenly surrendered to a giggling fit. Even Laloo Prakash, after an initial feeling of righteous indignation, began guffawing.
And in his corner, Sambamurthy, whose superiors would have been shocked if they knew how well he knew his English, allowed himself a dignified secretive smile. These profs! They’re all mad!