Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Riddle

Consider the tranquility prevailing outside the Central Library, a day just before the exams. Consider the orderly bustle just outside the library with people going in and out, quietly and efficiently. Picture the soft hue of the street lamps lighting up the area, bright enough to help the secluded couples in their combined studies, but not bright enough to reveal them.

Suddenly, disturbing the calm, one person goes charging into the library. He is lanky, just over six feet, wearing a blue T-shirt, a sagging Liviya bag and khaki pants. He looks like he has just awoken from a longer-than-intended nap. He rushes into the library. To save time, he picks out his entry card while running. The entry card was actually an RFID embedded “Smart Card” and to get into the library one had to swipe it at the turnstiles. He reached the entrance and swipes the card. It doesn’t open. He groans. The time is 8:45 PM. The library had the facility of issuing books only for a night but students interested in borrowing these had to do so between 8:30 and 9:00 PM. The smart card's failure, second time in a month, added to that tension. He motions to the guard. For some reason, there is some sort of smoke in the area around the guard. In fact, instead of a guard, there is someone dressed in long robes, having a flowing beard and a Thousand Watt halo. He looks more like St. Peter at the gate rather than a guard. However, in this story we shall call this character, The Guard. The student asks him to open the turnstile…)

“This is my Smart Card. It is not working.” the student says. “Can you let me in just for today?”
The Guard examines it. “Hmm… you need to get it activated.”
“I will definitely do it tomorrow, can I get in now?”
“Yes”, The Guard replies, but then just as he pulls up his robe and stretches for the button, an evil gleam occurs in his eyes.
“Look, this is out of procedure and…” he paused, adding fuel to the student’s fire of impatience, “but I could let you in… if you pass a test!”
“Huh”, the student pauses. His irritation is temporarily overwhelmed by puzzlement.

The imposing figure continues, “I will give you a small story and ask you questions at the end of it. If you answer them convincingly, I will let you in. If not… Muhahahaha” (Thunder and Lightning strike at the background)

“Whatever”, groans the student but in reality his curiosity has been aroused and would rather address this question than search for the book.

“Once upon a time”, The Guard starts…

(Tun tun tun tun… and a Newton’s wheel starts rolling slowly to indicate it a scene change)

Two friends Arjun and Krishnan were searching frantically for the textbook Betman and Nichols. (The textbook wasn't titled Betman and Nichols. It was referred to by the author's name, as is the convention.) Unsuccessful in their attempts, the bewildered duo went to the database and searched for the records of the book. They looked for the number of copies and the people who had borrowed them. Actually they were slightly late and realized that the chance of finding the book was small.

“When does the book bank open?” Arjun asked as he scrolled through the results.
The book bank was another facility offered by the library that allowed books to be borrowed for a month. The book bank usually had many copies of a book.
“Next Tuesday, but our batch has the lab. Quite possible we don’t get the book…”, muttered Krishnan as he worked on another terminal looking for alternatives.

Arjun was always in a huff. His walk had that quality of direction and purpose and it appeared as if he was always going from some A to some B on a mission. Not for him the casual stroll characteristic of Krishnan. In fact, K was extremely lazy. The only exercise he had was that of cycling to and from the classes and the mess. Rest of the time he spent in his room, reading. Not that he studied much. In fact, he scored lesser than Arjun who was often out for practice for the two institute teams he played for.

Turned out that there were twelve copies in all, seven of which had been taken by their classmates, two by their seniors, two by postgraduate students. That left one copy. Accession number: 341.234 BET, Millennium Hall.

“Didn’t we just search every rack there? Hmm… oh well! I guess we’ll just have to photocopy the relevant portions as the course goes along”, Arjun said disappointedly. ”Come, might as well go have a coffee”

As the two were walking out, they saw Balaji pass them. Balaji was a classmate and he was carrying four books. “Hello, what are you two doing here? Sudden burst of enthusiasm eh?” Balaji joked. However, Arjun and Krishnan were not paying any attention to him. They quickly looked at the titles of the books he was carrying. They realized that he was not carrying what they were looking for. These books were lower down in the reference lists.

Arjun replied,”Who is talking about enthusiasm? You are walking away with a year’s supply of books”, he laughed. And added slyly, “Did you find other books but didn’t take them as the limit had been reached?”

“Actually, yes! There was one book which I really wanted. And since I will return these books quite late, I think I will have to take that from the book bank.”
“Which book?” Arjun asked quickly.
“The Math Elective book”.
“Oh! And that is?”
“Err… Ahem..let’s see… some name I forget. Some book for Statistics”, Balaji replied after some hesitation. Immediately a smile came across Arjun’s face. Krishnan understood what was going on but he really thought Arjun was just hyperactive at times.
“Hey, did you see a Betman and Nichols?” Krishnan interrupted quite tired with Arjun’s ‘interrogative strategies’.
“Erm… no. My room neighbour has that. I will share it with him. Got to go now. See you”, he rushed off.

“Who would have thought? Tch tch tch… such low cunning in one so young”, Arjun said.
“I will tell you what! We will teach him a lesson”, Arjun said firmly.
“He has used the oldest technique in the book, hiding the book in some other rack.”
“I don’t think he would do that”, Krishnan said.
“Don’t you see it makes perfect sense? He comes to the library, finds four books and can’t take a fifth one. So he hides it”
“Yes! He did hum and haw when we asked him about it”, Krishnan said.
“Exactly…so that nails it. Let us find it and give him a taste of his own medicine.”
“But, where are you going to search? It is a lot of effort!” grumbled Krishnan.
“Look RDS (RDS was Krishnan’s nickname), don’t be a spoilsport. Have a bit of what the French call the joie de vivre. Let’s see. The first principle in these matters is to think like the criminal. Where would he have kept it assuming that others would never see it?”
“Alright. Let’s start by eliminating the possibilities. The Kid’s Section is out of question, the literary section is out of question…”
Arjun interrupted, “In fact, that is a good start!”
“Hey, that book is big… almost as tall as the shelf itself. Most books in the literary section are quite small.”

“But that is the least likely place. And lots of books are as tall as the shelf. We cannot assume anything about the height of a book. How do you what edition may be available? We must use the ‘Holmes’ian maxim that when all else has been eliminated on the grounds of logic, the option which remains, however implausible must be the correct one. We must go there.”

“But we have not eliminated all else you moron. You are just leading me on a wild goose chase. Why don’t you get yourself checked for some disorder or hormonal imbalance, you son-of-whatnot.”, grumbled Krishnan as he followed Arjun. The latter had started for the first floor long ago and paid scarce attention to K’s cribs.


“To cut a long story short”, The Guard said, “they were unsuccessful in their endeavour . My questions are: (1) Was Arjun justified in his accusation of Balaji as a student of low cunning? (2) Given that they made an exhaustive search across all the racks on all floors that contain textbooks, given that their search was thorough, given that this was not a case of an untraceable publication, where then was the book?”

The student said,” First of all, Arjun was mistaken in his hypothesis that Balaji was cheating. It is clear from the narration that Arjun wanted the book badly.”

“How is Arjun’s desperation clear from the story?”

“Why else would he take the pains to check who had all the copies? Clearly if he could not get it, he was looking for classmates from whom he could borrow the book to make photocopies. Also, in all probability, his “altruistic” intention to teach Balaji a lesson also had an ulterior motive of cornering the book for him.”

“Okay, agreed that you have established Arjun’s desperation”, The Guard nodded. “But how does that imply that Balaji is not a RG?”
“We also know that Balaji had only second or third choice references. So if he had seen that book, he would have taken that.”
“Good”, The Guard replied. “And the answer to the next question?”

The student thought some more.

The Guard interjected,” It is 8:49 now. If you don’t answer in a minute, you cannot make your overnight issue in time. Muhahahaha” he said and again thunder struck in the back.
“Do you have some sort of switch which does that?” the student asked, annoyed. “Well, did they search on the tables? And what time was this?”

“Oh! I forgot to clarify that. Yes, they did but it was not there. As for the time, it was between 10 AM and 11 AM”, The Guard added.

“Then one has to resort to the maxim that you had earlier quoted and choose the only remaining plausible option however improbable it may be.
Someone must have taken a photocopy of that book in the library itself, but instead of replacing it back at the rack, he/she may have just left it in that room and walked off, perhaps absent-mindedly, perhaps intentionally. Most of the times the guy who takes the photocopies will point this out but sometimes when there is a crowd he may not notice.”

After this, the turnstiles opened but suddenly The Guard faded away, while our hero ran up hurriedly to make the overnight issue.


(Now for the acknowledgements: The narration was inspired by my long time desire to write a story in the Vikram-Betaal style.
Also, the first paragraph's "consider ..., imagine ..." was from "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote. Do read that. Amazing style! The BoFi passed me that link.)