"Madness! A man needs a little madness, or else ... he never dares cut the rope and be free."
Zorba the Greek (1964)
IMOTC stands for the International Mathematical Olympiad Training Camp. Sounds real sexy until you realize that
1. It certainly ISN'T the IMO; it's meant to be the last hurdle before the hardest Olympiad in the world, and let's just say it does a pretty good job of making people work hard to get into the Indian IMO team.
2. The food is TOTALLY vegetarian, and for someone who lives in a part of India known for its non-vegetarian delicacies, it is better to die than spend a month with curds and rice (yes I know you liked it, Udi and Ashwath. Just a matter of taste).
3. Well, it isn't fun, in the strictest sense of the term. It's a rigorous, fast-paced camp that no one understands except a privileged few. In reality it can be quite a pleasant sensation to sway gently to the rhythm of mathematics and fall asleep without a care in the world as the Professor drones on about non-Euclidean geometry and modular functions and their relation to elliptic curves. But then you have to make sure that he doesn't catch you napping.
Anyway, this IMOTC I'm talking about is a camp held in Mumbai for a month in summer. I was selected to IMOTC 2007, where my roommate was initially a great guy from Pune called Ninad Sancheri. A week into the Camp, he left. He wasn't managing to cope with the workload, and was intelligent enough to leave to follow other more meaningful pursuits. I just mention him because he plays the central role in the killer story I'm about to tell you.
So we were roommates, fine. We talked about random things, like chess, SATs, and the general decline of a physics education in India. When night finally came, he asked me which bed I wanted. I chose one, and with it my destiny. To this day, I firmly believe that that was the single most important decision I took in my life.
I am a very sound sleeper. There is a saying in my school, that when I sleep, people listen. I'm not sure what they listen to, but what the hell, they go ahead and listen anyway. To the best of my knowledge, I don't snore, at least not loudly. The point is, when I sleep, nothing short of something like, for instance, a saber-toothed tiger or the French Revolution can wake me up.
So next morning, I was getting ready for classes when Ninad walked up to me and said, "Hey Rik, did you sleep well last night?" I thought this was a very thoughtful question to ask. Time proved me wrong. "Yep", I replied brightly; "And you?" Ninad scratched his ear and said, "Yeah ok, could have been better, I suppose. Say, did you notice any bedbugs?"
I stared at him for about twenty seconds, and then said, tonelessly "Bedbugs."
"Er - not that I can think of. Why, are there bedbugs here?"
"HELL YEAH THERE ARE."
This particular conversation ended right there. That day, after classes and everything, we went to sleep as usual. At around two o' clock in the morning, I woke up again and found Ninad sitting bolt upright in the next bed, staring intently at something on the ceiling. Completely nonplussed, I looked groggily as the room swam into focus. There, silhouetted in the soft moonlight seeping through the windows, sitting on his bed in his pajamas and staring at a bedbug on the ceiling, was Ninad. The bedbug in question was not cowering under the gaze. He was putting up a good fight too.
It was an epic psychological struggle. Ninad stared at the bedbug, and the bedbug stared at Ninad. I stared at them both, thinking of a good thing to say. I finally decided on "Ahem, ahem". Not a very smart thing to say, I know. But hey, what would you have done?
Ninad turned round and saw me goggling. His face split into a very toothy and embarrassed smile. "Bedbugs", he said by way of explanation. "So I perceive", I said, and went to bed.
Next day was a holiday. Our first practice test was coming up two days after that, so everyone decided to study a bit. But hey, there's only so much you can study in a day, especially if it is Olympiad math you are talking about. So everyone took it easy. Except - Ninad. He was shut up in the library from nine in the morning till seven at night, poring over ancient dusty volumes of the sort that are used by necromancers, if you know what I mean. We were all very impressed. "Here's a guy who KNOWS his math, and is going to OWN the tests", we said. "Smashing guy, he's giving it his all", we added. "F**K, HOW THE HELL IS HE STUDYING SO MUCH AT A STRETCH?", we concluded.
That evening, a tired and happy Ninad came back to our room, carrying an odd sort of bottle. He looked at me, his face glowing in the rays of the setting sun in an aura of victory, and a day well-spent. He said, in a winning voice, "I studied about bedbugs today."
I looked at him long. "Excuse me?"
"I studied about bedbugs today. In the library."
"You studied about - er - bedbugs today. In the library. All day."
"All day yes. And I found out a lot about them. Their history. Their habits. Their passions."
"Hold on, are we talking about bedbugs here? When you say 'their history'?"
"Yes, of course. D'you know, the first recorded bedbug was observed in Jabbalpur, India, in 1887 by Maharajah Sameerkhand."
Well, the story ends here. I don't remember what I replied. I just remembered his face when he said it. He was ABSOLUTELY serious. He isn't the kind of guy who jokes around. He is the no-nonsense guy. That odd bottle was a lotion of bedbug poison or something of the sort. He meticulously applied it all over his bed every night before he went to sleep. He was found, once or twice, talking to bedbugs. I'm convinced that if he tries hard enough, he will be the first person ever to actually understand bedbugs, their ways of thinking, their philosophy of life, their perspective on existence.
I just mentioned this because I was thinking about Ninad. He is one of the most brilliant students in India, and will be a great and successful person whatever he does in life. But as the story demonstrates, he's also mad. That is good, isn't it? Madness ... it's important to everyone who aspires to dream big one day.
Ninad, man, miss you.