In the corridors of the vaunted Indian Institute of Technology, the students and the staff are weeping. Asok the Intern, their beloved alumnus, is dead.
Well, he was dead. But not anymore.
And actually, they're not even weeping. Most of them don't even know who Asok is.
"Who?" asked IIT student Deeksha Gupta, 23, when told by a foreign reporter about Asok's untimely demise. "Sorry, we don't have time," she said as she walked away.
For the unenlightened or the overly busy, Asok (pronounced a-shook) is a character on the "Dilbert" cartoon strip, the satire of cubicle culture where the management is incompetent, the workers are "pathetic defeated losers" and ignorance, as the creator once wrote, is a point of view.
The cartoon is published in more than 2,000 newspapers in 65 countries.
Asok the Intern, introduced 11 years ago, is the green supergeek of the bunch, an overeducated Indian who loves Hindi music and works on the weekends to fix his co-workers' reports. He actually was educated at IIT, which he says is the reason why he's "mentally superior to most people on Earth." He can reheat tea by holding the cup to his forehead and thinking of fire. He only sleeps during national holidays, a habit supposedly picked up from his alma mater. And he once stole doughnuts during a meeting using only his mind. His IQ: 240.
"He's exaggerated," said 21-year-old IIT student Sumeet Khullar. "It's not that we're extraordinarily brilliant. We are brilliant — just not 240 IQ brilliant."
But even Khullar admits that Asok is extraordinarily naive.
He was once persuaded to jump into an air-conditioning duct to turn off the furnace. Later he was asked to create a poster for a customer appreciation campaign. The slogan: "Thank Goodness There Are So Many Idiots."
It was Asok's loyalty that led him to temporary death.
The story line began Dec. 3, when the world's worst boss, aptly named Pointy Haired Boss — the man who once said his computer was warm because the firewall was acting up — announced that his company would test a private spaceship. By Wednesday, PHB had chosen his victim, sealing Asok's interstellar fate: "Asok, I need an intern to test-pilot our new shuttle prototype."
"Wouldn't it be wiser," Asok asks, "to send a monkey on the first flight?" Response: "You're thinking of the second flight."
Thursday, we meet Asok's co-pilot, Death, who, in the Boss's words, is "a bit grim but works for free."
Friday, PHB announces Asok's death, but then offers some hope: "Before he left, [Asok] put a sample of his DNA in a jar. His plan is to reincarnate into his own clone." The only problem: The DNA jar is now filled with candy.
After Dilbert brings Asok back to life the next day, Asok lies in a hospital bed, half human, half Snicker's bar.
"You are doomed," Dilbert tells SnickAsok, "to walk the earth as half man, half snack." But just then, like a sugar-toothed Phoenix, Asok the human rises from the ashes of Asok the Snicker's Bar.
"It is lucky," he says after brushing away the chocolate, that "I studied guided reincarnation and advanced shape-shifting at the Indian Institute of Technology."
Asok is safe once again, reincarnated in just four comic-strip frames.
His death was met with some outrage online.
On the "Dilbert" message boards, Ryan Mulligan wrote, "You didn't kill off Asok the intern did you, monkey brain??? He was my favorite character in your comic strip. I often tried using Pointy Haired Boss's tactics on my interns just to see what happened. PLEASE bring Asok back!!!"
And on dailycartoonist.com, someone named Amir actually took the time to write a short eulogy: "Alas, poor Asok, you have taught us well — how to believe, how be hopeful even at times of unbelievable stupidity, how to strive to change the system from within, even when the system is trying to chew you up. You will forever be a loving memory in our mind. Rest in peace, Asok."
On the campus of IIT, one student who regularly reads "Dilbert," said he saw a greater meaning in Asok's character (and survival).
"He's a hardworking fellow who can't get ahead in life," Khullar said. "I think what [creator] Scott Adams is trying to portray is that intelligent people from Third World countries can't break the glass ceiling."
Adams and I had a conversation over e-mail about Asok, "Dilbert" and whether as an intern he also had to wear polka-dot ties.
Schifrin: Does Asok get e-mails? Spam? Viagra, Propecia ads?
Adams: I'm sure he gets them all. And if he's anything like me, it makes him feel bald and flaccid.
Schifrin: Is Asok a typical Indian? A typical intern? A typical IIT graduate?
Adams: I try to keep him typical and extraordinary at the same time. My favorite Asok comic alleged that he could warm his tea by holding it near his head.
Schifrin: What shapes your knowledge of IIT?
Adams: I know a number of graduates personally. And they are often in the news.
Schifrin: Ever been to India?
Adams: No, I don't get out much.
Schifrin: Why'd you kill Asok?
Adams: It was his turn. I killed Dilbert years ago. He came back too. I plan to kill them all eventually.
Schifrin: Why'd you bring him back?
Adams: He's too popular to leave dead. And I enjoy writing for him.
Schifrin: Is "Dilbert" documentary or fiction — for you and for your readers?
Adams: It's fiction suggested by fact. But many of the strips are more fact than fiction. I just give them a little twist.
Schifrin: Where were you an intern? Did you have to wear a polka-dotted tie?
Adams: I was never an intern. My first job was bank teller. I was robbed twice at gunpoint. My dream was to someday be an intern.
Schifrin: Will Asok be given any special privileges now that he's fallen on the sword for his company?
Adams: Interns never get rewarded.
Schifrin: What question(s) did I forget to ask?
Adams: Why am I so sexy? (It happened after I bought some products I saw in my spam.)
For Adams, the only human being on the planet to apparently benefit from spam, his "Dilbert" duties are done in a few hours every morning and he is running multiple restaurants in northern California. As for Asok, Adams says the Indian intern is now "on the boundary of gaining the necessary cynicism to survive." Perhaps that means his resurrection will bring greater street smarts, but not likely.