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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Nov 87
Last Words

Siva [N. Sivasothi]

I guess it all started when Stephanie (my chief editor) said, "Come down to the Zoo museum" in tones reminiscent of the proverbial spider inviting the fly to its parlour. Innocently, I went just to hand in an article but soon realised I was one of the editors! What followed was two weeks of incredibly hard work (which I am not used to) amidst rebellious mutterings .....

The typical scene at the Zoo museum, adopted (with thanks to Mrs Yap) as our work room, was one filled with confusion. Papers and diskettes covered the table- tops in total randomness. At the terminals were the editors who glared furiously at the articles they were painstakingly editing. Sometimes, they would look up at the air in desperate plea as they encountered incredible turns of phrases which defeated all sense of proportion. On other occasions, when faced with ridiculous suggestions from any one of the rest, they would look sadly at the source in muted disapproval, hiding a growing sense of frustration detected only by the frequency of their mutterings.

When articles were reviewed, comments were invariably passed but when some of the 'lecturers' contributions were keyed onto disc an ominous silence on the part of the typist prevailed reflecting her incomprehension .... Once, the writer of an article was present during the dissection of his work. He wore the worried look of a father-to-be who impatiently stalks the corridor outside the delivery room, while beads of sweat surfaced on his countenance. Then of course, there were the students who would rather remain 'incognito'. They slunk in to hand in their articles—cautioning us against revealing their true identities before disappearing in a haze of mystery.

Our chief editor was soon branded a 'slave driver' by her jolly team whose laughter approximated that of hysteria as the deadline grew close. Only she could comprehend the confused array of materials and how she managed to keep track of copied of articles, title headings, pieces of drawings and other such materials, we never knew. There were, however, occasional slip-ups which produced scenes of considerable amusement to the passive bystander. She would stand transfixed, while her hands pointed in two different directions as she pondered open-jawed, over the testy query of out layout artists who had been hunting high and low for the particular drawing she had last been seen holding. What followed would be a scurry of activity as she searched for the missing item, raking up the papers on the table. Finally admitting defeat, she would sidle up to our artist or typist who would resignedly produce another copy.

Once, horror of horrors, she claimed she had to leave to buy ink and left me in charge. Personally, I think she was just feeling vindictive and decided to take a break while I tried to figure out her system—which, after a seemingly endless but valiant struggle, I realised didn't exist!
drawing of EU the slave driver
The approach of lunch was usually heralded by groans, lamentations and protestations against the chief. Pitiful cries of "lunch, lunch" would fill the air before she would finally relent and let us go. The walk to the canteen is a long one, from the discreet corner of the zoology block to the bustle of activity in the science canteen. They were usually eventful journeys, interspersed with incidents like one where all of us got into a lift, pressed 'DOOR CLOSE', and stood there, silently contemplating each other. We hadn't pressed for our destination yet and the lift wasn't moving. Took us awhile before we realised the ridiculous situation we were in.

Our constant (unwilling) companions were the honours year students who were busy typing away their theses amidst the chaos created by our flurried activity. More, noise was created every time our lone artist took his occasional walk, from which he would never seem to return. Once in despair, our layout artist decided to do one of the illustrations herself. Having seen the finished product, she decided never again to indulge in such a folly! We enthusiastically supported this chastened view of hers. Our advisor hoped the future team would have at least two artists so that whenever one felt temperamental, the could still function.

As we prepared the final drafts, 'cutting and pasting' became a common means of correcting delinquent paragraphs. However, certain errors refused to be corrected, Popping up repeatedly despite the frantic attempts of our team to rectify the fault. Somehow, the amendments on disc and the final printout would never coincide. Some paragraphs, as such, became physically thicker as one correction after another was pasted on it! But the one that defeated us all was an article on which we had spent much time editing. It suddenly disappeared on disc never to resurface again! Just as sudden, everyone built up an aversion for the article and when I walked in the next day, I found the disgruntled author painfully typing in every single word again. When those who could type came down, we watched in wonder as their fingers danced over the keyboard in apparent ease—quite unlike the ponderous two-fingered typing the majority of us had resorted to!

As days became weeks and the deadline approached, we started going back later and later. Everyday at 5.00pm, we faced threats of eviction from Mrs Yap, but usually one of the honours students who held the keys would save the day by deciding to stay back. When we finally left, the dark evening sky never failed to surprise us as the last time we had been outside was midday. Finally, out of all the mangle, we got the plates ready and started printing. "Phew!", we all said and wiped our brows in relief. But now, all the fun was over and it was back to the books for us. In retrospect I think the honours students too felt relief as we left their sanctity, welcoming once again, the relative peace and quiet that had once prevailed before we descended on them that third week of the holiday.

See also "A Stitch in Time" (1998). last words

© N Sivasothi, 2001