I joined insti on a whim.
If anybody had told me as I got out of school that I would be pursuing a liberal arts course a few months down the line, I would have laughed them away. At that time, I was just another rat in India’s biggest rat-race, vying for a seat in a government engineering college, with no idea about why engineering or what engineering. It was just the normal thing to do. Today, five years later, I find “normal” problematic.
My department and the institute have moulded me into a very different person. Consider, for instance, how I have put normal in quotes rather than problematic. Ironically, I did not know of the existence of ‘problematic’ before I joined the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Over five years, I have studied subjects that I never dreamt of studying [Introduction to Western Philosophy!], had conversations I never dreamt of having [what is freedom, my friends?] and done things that I doubt I would have been able to do anywhere else [redraft the Students’ Constitution?]. My department taught me things – the institute gave me the freedom to test them within a controlled environment. Insti, for me, is that space that slowly formed over five years through the overlap between my department and everything else that IIT Madras has to offer: it is the space I created, the space where I tried to thrive and learn, the bubble that I lived in for five years.
Much like a bubble, insti expanded slowly as I pushed boundaries and explored more of my department and the institute. In my first year, I was content to confine myself to exploring a new world where the protagonists were humans – not theorems or formulas. The insti that I perceived at that time was calm and serene – it was a place where I could attend lectures on a variety of topics, play hockey, go on village visits, read about Plato and Musk, and spend a day idling. Insti at that time was not demanding or hectic. This side of institute is one that I think freshies and final years feel forcefully: a certain kind of innocence, or some kind of a quiet threat, forces students into that space. Within that space, one can learn and grow at one’s own pleasure – nobody and no thing can dictate terms within that cocoon.
At some point though, that cocoon breaks. One fine morning, one wakes up to realize that every day is a new day, with a new horizon to explore. In amazement, one suddenly learns that underneath the stillness and serenity of the institute lies a happening-world, where 24 hours do not suffice. Time loses its meaning as one starts exploring this part of the institute: days blur into weeks, weeks blur into months, months blur into semesters, and before you know it, that painstakingly built bubble bursts. Insti, for the most part, was this blur. LitSoc, Sports, PoRs and people came together to form a powerful concoction, to which were added the special flavours of institute politics and power-plays. For the better part of five years, this nasha held me under its sway – and I loved it.
Experiences such as these, from what I understand from people in insti, is the norm in the institute. Yet the institute is layered, and the same place, I realized, is inhabited by a multitude of people. There are some (like me), who if asked, would naively want to know the meaning of life, the universe, and everything; some, who would tell that the answer is 42; and many others, who are far removed from this question by virtue of their socio-economic backgrounds. Insti, I noticed, was not kind to the last type of people. Some spaces in insti, especially the cultural scene [and may I dare say T5E?] was not for everyone; segregation, I realized after looking at the “front-end” and “back-end” departments in Saarang and Shaastra, becomes a self-fulfilling, inadvertent policy. Most students aren’t aware of these issues, some don’t care about it, others believe that protecting “culture” takes precedence, and the many others who swear by liberal ideals can’t find time from their shouts of “fascism; brahminism!” to work with the admin to make student lives better. The admin, on the other hand, act like ostriches with heads in the sand: they choose to ignore wounds until they fester and ooze with pus, and then feel good that they could at least prevent amputation.
Why are these so? The answer is a function of multiple variables, but in my opinion, the strongest factor is the lack of a vision for students and student life. What we currently have are vaguely mentioned platitudes regarding students in the IIT Madras Vision 2020 document, and unfortunately, even those vague statements have not been followed up with a concrete action plan by the institute administration. Students, especially student representatives and cores, are yet to find leadership good enough to articulate (or follow-up) a vision for student life in IIT Madras that goes past one year (if that), and this makes systemic change led by students an impossibility. Student life in IIT Madras meanders furiously towards wherever there is money and glamour; clarity of purpose, in most cases, is non-existent.
Harsh as all of this is, it must be admitted that it is insti itself that gave me the knowledge, experience and the space to critically analyze it. The atmosphere in insti was such that I never felt that I, as a HS student, was any different from anybody else [except when the admin decided to spoil my graduation]. These in itself are privileges: while one can argue that the institute was just doing its job, it is important to recognize that most colleges in India do not do the same. This safe space must be respected – and guarded. One thing I learned from insti was that the onus was on the students to make their institute experience better – make their own insti, so to say. This requires greater student participation in student governance, greater engagement with the admin, and a better understanding and practice of ethics and morals. The last point is especially important – the growing ideological polarization in insti is a product of pettiness and a lack of empathy, and except IIT for Villages [my refuge, an oasis of good intent and social responsibility in an otherwise self-centered desert-world], I am yet to see an organization in insti that has formally written down its core values and adheres to the same.
Looking back, I must say that I do not approve of the the way in which the 17 year old me took the decision to join the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. That decision was uninformed and not well-thought-out, spurred purely by a need to be different. In hindsight though, I think there is no better decision that I have taken in my (albeit short) life: I am happy and content today, and I do not wish for anything in my insti-life to be different.Thank you, insti, for everything.