Reflections of Life on Campus: Urvi Shah (MA/HSS/2016)

By Urvi Shah

In my fourth semester, as a part of my course titled,”Communication” my professor arranged a video conference with Malaysian students. For this, we were led to a technically equipped room in Electrical Sciences Building. After the call ended, we immediately left the room. On my way back I realised I had left something behind. I walked back and entered the room only to be greeted by a cheerful Electrical engineering professor who was surprised to hear what we had been up to in the last hour. But, a sudden change in his demeanour followed, when he bombarded me with questions like, “What was the point of this conference? What exactly do you study?”. To my chagrin, he further added, “Everyone from the top to bottom, from the director to professor is an electrical engineer. What exactly is the point of studying something like English?” As an unassuming second year, I defended my department, my field of choice and salvaged a bit of my self respect before leaving the room. The seething rage which I felt then subsided, but only momentarily. Time and again this rage has returned, consumed me till I have pushed it aside and continued with my tasks. But, I think the time has arrived to address it because my five years here have reached an end and if not for myself, I should address it for my juniors.


No, unlike most people here I did not write the infamous IIT Joint Entrance Examination, which is undoubtedly the toughest exam in India. No, I did not dedicate two years of life to this quest. No, I do not have a factory. No, I am not even a science student. No, this does not make me any less intelligent, smart or capable. You might be surprised but I was a commerce student. I was intent on studying economics till I came across this course that IIT Madras offered. So, I appeared for the Humanities and Social Sciences Exam. This would be a five year integrated masters course with me selecting a specialisation in either English or Development Studies. I cleared it. I was happy. This course suited my needs and aspirations. My parents were as proud as any of a successful JEE student. Was this my last option? No. This was first. Was my board percentage low enough to not get me admissions anywhere else? No. I had a 96.75% enough to get me into any of the coveted Delhi University Colleges for commerce.  Am I blowing my own trumpet? Yes, giving myself the credit which IIT Madras often failed to. And, this is not just my story. This is a story of a lot of people in my department (if you are not one of them, I beg your pardon and shall continue nevertheless).


My first semester here was quite uneventful. I remained cooped up in my room, focused just on my academics scared of letting any distraction get into its way. Of, course as usual, this earned me the title of a muggu, and RG and other titles which no one here really aspires for. An RG, is not something which you want to be called. There is a spiteful undercurrent in that and once you enter the RG club, you never really leave. Doesn’t matter if your CGPA isn’t high enough anymore or you haven’t prevented anyone from working hard. It’s just IITian’s way of showing disdain for anyone who works harder than they do. To me it is just envy. If you don’t get the grapes, make sure you call them sour. Anyway, moving ahead, I remember how unabashedly seniors told us about the skewed sex ratio in our department. On an average, girls were a minority here, a species to be revered, coveted and chased, nothing less that the endangered blackbucks in the campus. But, in my department, girls were a majority. That piqued the interest of insti boys, who (no offence to the insti boys), are usually seen as desperate creatures , their desperation justified by many in terms of the two bland years spent preparing for IIT JEE when released from bondage, find their hormones on overdrive, or so I have heard. Well, I don’t think this far from truth.  I remember, as an excited fresher, I looked forward to my freshie night which is usually in most colleges supposed to be a space for interaction between seniors and juniors. Truth be told, in insti, it’s where senior boys come to single out girls they want to pursue. The process of objectification at its utmost best. Untouched by the nuances of insti life and the famous night outs we put, I had very vehemently decided not to be a part of any of the stage events. Instead, I went there as a naive observer. Little did I know, that hoards of hormone dripping men (who in hindsight remind me of salivating cattle) were going to ask me questions like, Do you have a sister? Is she the same age as you? Do you have a photo of her? I don’t remember their faces. But, I remember the unwarranted proximity of strangers, the stench of their sweats and the disgust I felt. You might think this is a snippet from a nightmare I saw, but I have friends with worse experiences; whether they would choose to corroborate it now is a different matter altogether.


Maybe five years is too long a time to hold grudges and ill feeling. But, nonetheless I’ll go on. Mess table was for me the place I got initiated into the world of IITians. This is where I heard adages like Btechs for wedding and MAs for beddings. This is where I learnt about the hierarchy among departments. Before the MAs entered the picture in 2006, the lowest rung was occupied by the BT department. They, I hear are quite relieved that we came in. Unfortunately, we were not that pleased to be the doormat that  B-techs could step on. A lot of my friends say that mine is a lost cause. There is no way that we can gain stature and respect. Minorities everywhere are treated like this which when extended to society is a very sad state to be in. Someone told me, think about the CS department in St. Stephens. How do you think they are treated? Well, power structures exist everywhere. Maybe the “life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, as Hobbes mentioned. Racial, class and caste based discrimination are just extensions of man’s need for power and subjugation. Hence hierarchy is inevitable. How I see this hierarchy in IITM, is for the engineers to keep their egos inflated and undue pride intact by constantly having someone to laugh at, a persistent otheration. It’s like a school playground; bullies run the show by picking on the weak. We aren’t physically weak of course. But, we are weak in terms of number, the apparent technical skills we lack and the lower pay packages we end up earning. Coming to think of it, lack of technical skills is one reason where all the jokes stem from, I would like to ask, how many engineers, BTech and MTech graduates end up in technical jobs? As far as I have seen and understood, all the coveted first day jobs are consultancy or analyst positions. All the companies offering core technical jobs apart from those for CS and EE come on the seventh or eighth day for which the demand is not even high. And, if this is still the basis for the disrespect, well then we are still in the 1990s where apart from doctors and engineers everyone else was considered stupid in India. Of course, as I have observed, the mind-set still exists. As far as pay packages go, I am not denying that society is structured in a way that technical skills are rewarded and demanded more than non technical skills. But, did I not know this when I decided to enter this course? In fact, more than the pay package, I was excited about the learning, the knowledge I’d assimilate and the person I’d become at the end of five years. As long as I do not have a problem with it, I don’t think I need reproach from anyone who hasn’t made the same choices.


Over the years, I played the wild doubt games over and over again in my mind when I unconsciously ingrained the disrespect that I received from my surrounding, when I constantly questioned my choices, when my confidence hit rock bottom. Not being the normal HS drams or lit enthu, I ambled around trying to fit in, find a secure space, a foothold, anywhere away from the reprimand. I don’t think I have developed a thick skin to the HS jokes as I am supposed to after five years, like a lot of my peers have. I haven’t. It still hurts to have my capabilities and achievements questioned. It still hurts when people don’t think I deserve enough just because I am not an engineer like them. It’s a double burden, being a girl and being in HS. Our kind, we fit into all kinds of stereotypes and jokes. A part of me says it doesn’t matter now. I am out in the world to face bigger battles which is way more intolerant than  IIT was of difference.  But, another part of me doesn’t want anyone from my department to feel the same as I did however inconsequential my emotions seem in hindsight. The plea is for more tolerance, respect and love for people who are not the same as you are. Please bear in mind, in no way am I slighting an IITian who cleared JEE’s achievements and worth, But, I am slighting the pride, the ego and lack of humility. I think more than intelligence the world needs compassion. And, if both go hand in hand, what better can one ask for?


But this does not negate the wonderful bitter-sweet years I spent here. I made friends for a lifetime. Friends who were once conditioned by the system, but who I have convinced to let go of prejudices, who accept me just the way I am. Do I regret coming here? No, I don’t. The kind of people I met here, the experiences I gained, I wouldn’t have anywhere else. The opportunity of interacting with the brightest brains in the country, the ones who so passionately devote themselves for causes and work they care for, I am thankful for that.  If I meet the person I was five years ago, I wouldn’t recognise her. On that note, I shall stop writing. I hope my message is conveyed. I hope this doesn’t erupt into another HS-B-Tech conflict. I hope egos pave way for acceptance. I know a lot of critique can be levied against my arguments and my claims but the drift is strong. I hope you get it and not undermine it.

This account has also been published in Article 19, the Humanities and Social Sciences department magazine at IIT Madras.

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