Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Nithyanand Rao

Series Editor: Liza Tom
You can read the other TGG articles here.

Sometime in my first few weeks here, I happened to wander into the SAC Auditorium where an alumnus was giving a talk. I remember nothing at all except that he said “Immerse yourself,” with great emphasis on the first word. I don’t remember the good man’s name, but bless him, I took him for his word and things haven’t turned out so bad.

That’s not going to be reflected on the certificate I’ll be handed on the convocation day because it will declare that I have an M.Tech from IIT Madras. In reality, these two years have been a relaxed, but near-full-time journalism school for me. The M.Tech has been purely incidental, little more than a convenient excuse to keep occupying my hostel room (and benefit from the free internet) while I figured out how to become a science journalist.

That’s a job? Kind of. “It doesn’t feel like work. You’re just having fun,” argues Anil Ananthaswamy, Distinguished Alumnus 2014. “It sure beats working for a living,” says another science journalist I know who’s been at this for almost as long as I’ve been alive. He went on to add that the “living” part is a bit of a stretch, but we’ll ignore such inconsequential details.

Not one part of my time on this campus was planned. On arriving, I had misgivings about what I had walked into. But then I convinced myself that getting paid (the M.Tech stipend, though in two years I haven’t lifted a finger for TA duty) for loitering around the campus, sleeping in class, and spending most of my waking hours scrupulously reading everything non-academic wasn’t such a bad deal.

My scrupulousness extended to reading all the Smails and thus it occurred to me that I could write something for T5E. Not long afterwards, while standing nonchalantly in front of the library, I was informed that I’m the editor of a T5E-Shaastra research magazine. Nameless at the time, it’s now Immerse. As a direct consequence, I got to attend the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, early June.



I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have (accidentally) come to the right place and to have met (somewhat less accidentally) the right people — students, faculty, alumni — at the right time. It’s hard to imagine another educational institution in India where I could’ve had the opportunity and the freedom I’ve had here to do what I really wanted to do, while pretending to pursue an entirely unrelated academic degree. Siddhirbhavati karmaja indeed; but you need the right environment to enable that. To all those who made that possible, who have become good friends: you’re the people who come to mind when I think of my two years here. It has been a most fulfilling experience.

Admittedly, I did have my preconceptions, mostly ill-informed, about what IITs (and IITians) were like. A few have been reinforced. The majority have proved to be wrong. So it would seem churlish to now unleash my list of 101 Rants about IIT Madras.

I won’t, therefore, tell you how my olfactory (and other) senses have been put through stringent tests by both the monkeys and (some of) the humans who live in my hostel, the two species displaying a case of convergent evolution so remarkable that even Sir David Attenborough would be impressed. Both species clearly know when and how to respond to their physiological needs, but neither is aware of the advanced technology called “flush” that is conventionally used by many humans after their digestive system gives them an output. On the rare occasions that they exercise the option of using water, they enjoy leaving the tap open.

I will also refrain from telling you how members of the local vanara sena often express their gratitude to the wrong man by politely waking me up at 6 am while they feast on Domino’s pizza and chicken legs that were thoughtfully dumped into the dustbin outside my room by someone. Human or monkey, I know not. Nor will I regale you with the tale of how I came face-to-face with a male blackbuck, who had horns that appeared to have been honed with a Nataraj Pencil Sharpener, and who was visibly annoyed after discovering that the female blackbuck he merrily chased for half-an-hour was actually a female deer. And seemingly held me responsible for his predicament.

I’ll make just one single point: There quite clearly exist two non-interacting parallel universes on this campus. And both universes are poorer for it.

To the (few) fellow postgraduate students who read T5E: If you thought there was a generation gap between you and your parents, wait till you discover the chasm that separates you and those only a couple of years younger. You don’t have to believe me. Befriend a few of them and you’ll see that they have a thing or two to teach you.

To the undergraduate students: Get rid of the condescending attitude that some of you have. You know exactly what I’m talking about. There are genuinely remarkable and thoughtful people among the M.Tech students, the M.S. and Ph.D. scholars — I say this having been at other universities — and you’re missing out massively by not interacting with them.

But enough about all that. There’s more to Chennai than IIT Madras. This city, for me, is hallowed ground. This is where I discovered what separates music from noise. I cannot think of Chennai without remembering him. Pt. Shivkumar Sharma said he returned to gandharvalok. The part of me that went with him, far from dying, experienced rapture. Much as one rarely dwells on the everyday miracle called sunrise, I had never paused to reflect on his presence. Now, however, I see how the lasting influence of his music, the depth of which I’m yet to fully comprehend, has not so much seeped into but utterly drenched every aspect of my being in ways that I startlingly keep discovering everyday.

And it’s not just me. Someone at a graduation party in Amsterdam once attempted to play, on a guitar, his signature composition — elements of which can be found in many of his later works — in which (almost) everything he wanted to say finds expression. I wish I could do the same. But like someone else in Poland, all I can do is write. In memoriam Mandolin Uppalapu Shrinivas, I’ll leave you with this haunting piece, appropriately titled “Lotus Feet”. Originally composed by John McLaughlin, beautifully developed by Pt. Hariprasad Chaurasia, perfected by Shrinivas.

1429866644631About the author: A lapsed physicist, Nithyanand Rao did an M.Tech in Industrial Mathematics and Scientific Computing. He was the Immerse editor for the last two years. He would like to point out that his name comes readymade for becoming a swami. Hence the pose. In the interim, he works as an editor at the Archives and Publications Cell of the Indian Institute of Science.

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