11 May, 2017

Being an IITian (unabashed version)

I graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 2013. This year I complete as many years outside those gates as I had spent in the campus. Over the course of the last four years I have met with countless people with numerous questions regarding life at IIT ranging from hushed topics like ragging, sex ratio, and Arvind Kejriwal to those which people feel are a matter of public discourse like placements, subsidies, and… well Arvind Kejriwal.
But the most persistent question of all has been this – “What was the use of studying engineering if you wanted to pursue MBA and investment banking.” And the question is asked with such animosity that I fail to understand if it is rooted in idle curiosity or mere jealousy. So that this point I wish to take it upon myself for the sake of my community I dearly love to answer this question. But before I do, let’s dig a little deeper into the question – What does it mean to be an IITian?
A much as it would surprise the world at large, I think this truth needs to be revealed for once and for all. IITians are people! Let’s read that again and think about it for a moment. IITians are people! Even those who bag Crore rupee packages, about whom reporters from Times of India (who have never heard of the term “purchasing power parity”) so gladly exaggeratedly publish. IITians are people! Including the ones who go abroad. Even those who sit next to you in the office and do the same work as you do. They do not consider themselves superior to you. They do not consider themselves inferior to you. They just consider themselves as people. While some might wonder how come a graduate from an “elite” university can live the same stereotypical average normal life as you do, it is a question that would never cross their own minds.
Take a moment to imagine life at IIT. For 4-5 years the kid is surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of people who “don the IIT tag”. It is not elite or special or high-profile. Its everyday life. For four years. It is not until that kid graduates that he realizes that there are people who consider them to be a unique breed. “So what?” he thinks. They’re people. Sadly, these “people” are incapable of seeing the other person as anything beyond an “IIT tag”. They never understand that IITs are like any other university. There were students who topped the class and there were those who were at the bottom of the class and there were those who had to repeat a year. There was a time when everyone at IIT was confused about where to go with their careers. And most kids there opt to spend the entirety of their lives in the same rat race as the majority of the world does.
By now I can almost feel the comments – “So what’s the point of IIT? Why put so much tax money in them? What’s the point if all we are going to produce are average people, people who go abroad, and what about Arvind Kejriwal?”
For starters, there’re the regular answers. The largest repository for online video lectures in the world, NPTEL with over 4k hours of content, 69k subscribers, and 44.7M hits. While the cynics focus on Arvind Kejriwal IITs have produced alumni of irrefutable repute like Narayan Murthy, Sachin and Binny Bansals, Sundar Pichai, Manohar Parrikar, Raghuram Rajan, Pranav Mistry, Vinod Khosla, (pause for breath) Kiran Bedi, Jairam Ramesh, Rajat Gupta, Arunabh Kumar, Biswapati Sarkar, Nandan Nilekani, and these are only the ones who are still alive. 270 of the Fortune 500 India companies have an IITian on their board. Lastly, a study by Zinnov Consulting shows that the investment on IITians in the last five decades ranges between Rs 20-40k Cr while the contribution by IITians to the economy is around Rs 20 lakh Cr.
But all this is numbers and theory. That’s not what people want. They need the answer to be personal. They wonder what is the point of having a colleague or competitor being an IITian if they do the same work. Actually, they do not wonder. They know with absolute certainty that he struggled unnecessarily and feel proud that they reached the same place taking a much easier path. Hence, they “won at life”, aka the rat race.
Here’s where I differ. The next time you see that IITian colleague of yours just consider his demeanor for a moment. IITians are a humble lot. Society puts them on a pedestal. They are used to living in 77 sqft boxes and showering in a common bathroom. Four years of peers who excel at things ranging from music to robotics instills humility. No matter how good I get at anything I always know a close friend who started out as the same as me and has done it better. Consider the kind of psyche such a person likely to develop. For very formative four years of his life he studied played and ate with people whom he referred to as “friends”. It was the society outside who counted them as different.
Secondly, notice if he is at ease with himself. Is he more or less open in accepting your quirks and eccentricities? Is he socially inept, rebellious, or just struggling to fit in despite his personality conditioned in those years at IIT. Think of how that would have developed. A difference between a good college and any other institution is the amount of freedom given to the students and how students use that freedom. IITs are among the ones who get that right. They not only provide their students with time and opportunity to pursue their passions but also leave no stone unturned in nurturing that passion with the right infrastructure. You like music? Here’s a sound proof room with the latest equipment. You don’t want to use the music room and take the drums to your room? Sure why not! The other kids won’t mind if you’re good enough. Ok. So now you don’t want to play drums but build an iron-man suit for the army? Here’s the money and a team of like-minded people. So you want to take a job because you lack the entre entrepreneurial spirit to sell your invention? Well, no problem. You tried honestly. Move on.
IITians are bred in an environment where we learn to be at ease with the decisions we take. Accepting ourselves for who we are. How is it in adulthood before that privilege is taken from us? Social pressures and stigma forces people to live their entire lives wearing masks. IITians are generally uncomfortable with that. We prefer to embrace our eccentricities rather than be embarrassed by them. In process, fighting the uphill battle of the social system. Of you and your animosity.
Lastly, I do acknowledge all the black sheep of my fraternity whom too many people quite callously take liberty in making fun of. But try to notice that no IITian would ever join you in making fun of them. It’s called camaraderie. Look it up. It amazes me how that concept is so lost in the lives of normal everyday people. But the next time your IITian colleague talks to you about his alma mater, take a moment to notice your own feelings. The envy isn’t because he got to go to a more famous establishment. What you feel might be envy arising out of the realization that unlike him, you never knew a time in your life when you were free to pursue your dreams, accepted for who you were, surrounded by people better than you, and yet surrounded by friends.
An IITian understands what “passion for life” feels like even though he might not feel it right now. He has known it in the past. And since he has come out of those majestic gates, he has craved to feel it again. It’s not his tag that makes you jealous. It’s his ability to love a time in his own life so dearly. Not too many people are blessed with 4 continuous years of magic.
Perhaps that was the point of being an IITian. I’m not very sure. After all I’m just a bad engineer trying to survive in the rat race. You cannot trust someone with those credentials, can you? But do watch out for me in case I’m in the same race as you. Chances are that while you were chiding me for having better shoes, I might have taken the lead.