Through The Goggles Of A Graduate: Isha Bhallamudi

The author of the latest instalment of our “Through The Goggles Of A Graduate” requires no introduction, but we’ll try our best anyway. The Fifth Estate’s own Editor-in-Chief extraordinaire from 2016-2017, Isha Bhallamudi, pens a poignant letter that will serve as a handy guide to surviving life on campus. When not juggling her numerous projects, including several groundbreaking commitments she undertook for this news body like the “Gender Series”, Isha was busy spreading joy and bubbles in and around insti, fuelling a healthy addiction for stationery and tea, and occasionally toasting marshmallows over makeshift fires. Currently, you can follow her on Instagram @isha_bhallamudi as she breaks down social media myths about the perfect life and also tracks the weather from her gorgeous balcony. 

Hi everyone! I’m Isha, and I just graduated from the HSS department with an Integrated MA in Development Studies.

I have been wondering what I can add that previous TGG writers haven’t already, that too in expert writing. Here are some of my reflections on insti life. I have tried to offer some fresh thoughts compared to previous articles, which have already covered most of what I feel!

When I joined IITM, I thought five years was a very long time to spend in one place. My first impression of insti was that it was beautiful, huge and mysterious enough that you could not discover all its secrets in one go. In the first sem, full of blind enthusiasm, we soon got used to walking up several kilometres instead of taking cycles or buses. Some of my best memories over these years are of long night walks taken with my favourite people, where we talked endlessly about everything. As a new alumna (which automatically makes me eligible to give all sorts of advice of course), I highly recommend aimless walking about on campus.

I was as clueless as most engineering students are, about the social sciences, when I joined my programme. So even when very insulting questions come my way, I try to be as understanding as I can. I discovered the immense breadth of my topics of study in these five years. The social sciences is not one discipline but an umbrella holding many together. I am grateful to the structure of my programme, which seamlessly brought together the study of economics, sociology, peace and conflict, logic, mathematics, world literature in English, development, gender, disability, and so much more. It forced us to be able to think and work across disciplines and I see that it has equipped me with the tools to attempt a critical understanding of my society and the world around me.

At its core, the social sciences is about studying society and human beings, ‘puzzling out’ why people behave the way they do, and trying to understand the factors and imperatives that influence their actions. It is a worthy pursuit in a world that has overwhelmingly been shaped by human beings and continues to transform at a rapid pace. This is why I wish that a basic exposure to the HSS is received by every student. At a personal level, I think studying the HSS has also given me a sense of perspective and helped me make sense of my life as I go along. I grapple with my education and its content all the time, even now.

I can’t talk about insti without talking about its people. Insti is a place where you can make friends no matter how introverted or weird you are and over the course of your time here you will meet various sorts of people. I count myself very lucky to be part of some great friendships with seniors. Most of all, I am grateful to my group of 8 friends and wingmates: strong, brilliant and funny women whose friendships are basically the reason I made it through alive and (mostly) unharmed. I don’t know if there will ever again be a time filled with so much mindless, irrational laugh-till-you-cry kind of screamy laughter. I’ll always associate that with hostel life and college.

A Few Words of Comfort, or: How Not to Lose Your Sanity in Here

Sometimes, I worry that studying in an IIT may have given us a small chip on our shoulders which I notice in many IIT graduates when they interact with non-IITians. How can we keep it real, is a question worth pondering. On the other hand, there are some pressures that may be unique to people in IITs, and one is the level of stress and pressure to do something earth-shaking. We see the people who seem to have it all and wonder why we can’t be as good. We definitely tend to glamorize a certain sort of insti people – those who have a great CGPA, a great PPO, great internships, great relationships, great discipline, and who are even great at their hobbies – all at the same time! We convince ourselves that we lack some fundamental qualities required for success.

The campus atmosphere, while full of delights, challenges and opportunities, can also be incredibly challenging and competitive in the worst ways. There are many points of time where no matter how much you are doing, you may feel like it is too little. Adding to that, general empathy and sensitiveness can be low. You may find it difficult to to confide your worries to the people around you, for fear that they will tell you it is not “really” a problem, or that it is inconsequential in front of the problems they themselves are facing. Where has the simple act of listening and understanding gone? What kind of friends do we want, and what kind of friends do we want to be?

I would ask all of you to be a little more kind to yourselves when you feel worried, or low. When you feel overwhelmed, try to take a step back and ask for help. Step out with a friend. Sometimes, even taking a walk can do you a great deal of good. We are not machines, we are people who cannot function perfectly 24*7, and yes, we all make mistakes. Acknowledge that this applies to you too. Let us talk about the things that cause us stress, more. That’s the only way to create a supportive environment amongst ourselves, and start to release that stress.

Insti has its hierarchies through which one is supposed to prove themselves: getting to ‘core’ positions in Shaastra or Saarang, becoming an institute secretary, getting into a particular class of jobs or internships, winning awards, and so on. But if you look around you, there are plenty of people who are doing well and are happy without doing any of these things. If you want unique role models suited to your sensibilities, you will find them around you.

A Wishlist and a Working Plan: Things We Need to Change on Campus

The institute is reflective of the wider world around us, and as it has become more polarized, so too has insti. We use labels very easily now: extreme left, extreme right, hindutva, commie. The pretence of decency is starting to vanish and there is a sense of entitlement. At the same time, sadly, the majority of students remain apathetic or proudly “neutral” towards these goings-on. These are alarming to me as someone who saw a much more laid back campus five years back.

Student governance is a wonderful thing, and it has had its share of achievements. But do remember that student governance only works when everyone participates. To ensure that extreme opinions do not turn destructive, it is important that all students are aware of and participate in student governance. Please take an interest in the wider events around you: go to SLC meetings and hostel and department GBMs, raise questions and hold your representatives accountable. It is both your right and duty to do so. Otherwise one day, you may suddenly find yourself in an insti you do not like, and wonder what happened, and it might be too late to arrest those developments.

In this vein, what are some things I wish we could change in insti, to make it the best place it could be?

First, the littering and general sense of wastefulness. Let us make an effort to pick up our trash, and to finish everything on our plates.

Second, the way we crib. Cribbing is the wonderful preserve of students – a social activity and a guilty pleasure. However, let us try to make this more productive. If you are cribbing continuously about a course and have some serious irritation: can you talk to the CR? Can you speak to the prof? Can the crib include some positive action? Often, small steps can make big differences, if only we choose to act.

Third, developing a sense of sensitivity towards our fellow human beings on campus. Let me be frank, the way male students (yes, I am generalizing) talk about female students on campus is extremely insulting. The campus cannot be an equal space if the second you walk into guru, 50 pairs of eyes look you up and down, and the table nearby can be overheard ‘rating’ you like you are a piece of food they have bought. Seniors, stop ganging up on single girls in groups on freshie night; stop ordering freshie boys to follow freshie girls around and harass them for their phone numbers. It might be fun for you but this is technically a punishable offence by law and makes girls feel disgusted and very reluctant to approach male seniors. Let me bust the assumption right away: this is definitely not how you get girlfriends.

How sensitive are we to students with disabilities? Insti’s infrastructure is good but perhaps we could take more basic steps like classroom numbers, faculty name boards and book repositories in braille, as well as ramps for buses and lifts for buildings which require them.

Also, there are many students who are extremely smart and hardworking but are not proficient in English. This can hold them back from doing their best. There could be some study groups formed to catch up on language proficiency. Towards this end, posters and announcements can also be made in some basic languages other than English.

There are 8000 students on campus. Together, you can make just about any change you want. Do take the opportunity! There is a beauty in trying to make your community better, regardless of whether the attempt is a success.

Some Useful Life Hacks

I’ll leave you with a small list of things I wish someone had told me right in the beginning of my first year. I hope it is somewhat useful. Life at insti comes with its highs and lows, but it’s never too late to make a change.

  1. Work towards a decent CGPA and ignore the people who tell you that a high CG is not important. Also ignore the people who tell you that “decent” means >9.5.
  2. Try to get fresh air everyday. Enjoy the upswing in your mood and alertness.
  3. I cannot overstate this enough, and sorry for sounding preachy, but try and get 2-3 non-junk meals a day and a decent amount of water (no, a puff does not count as a decent meal and yes, I also did not manage this advice most of the time, but I wish I had). I won’t say anything about sleep, because some things are impossible.
  4. Don’t blindly listen to your seniors when they give you advice (a wonderful senior told me this and ironically, it is great advice). Be aware, find out things for yourself, and don’t be afraid to ignore some of the advice you get.
  5. Explore the campus! I kept finding unexpected things across campus even till the last week before I left. Take some risks and break some rules occasionally too. It will do you good.
  6. Chennai is a lovely city, despite the weather. Take the chances to explore the city and its brilliant restaurants. Starter pack: Egmore Museum, Fort St. George, Theosophical Society, bajjis at Marina beach, a trip to Sathyam. There’s lots more of course. Go with your localite friends if you are directionally challenged, like me.
  7. Take up small side-projects during the semester if you can (especially during lighter semesters), both to gain experience and skills, and to earn some extra money. This can also help you to:
  8. Try to travel to places nearby with your friends on long weekends. These can be cost effective trips: Pondicherry, Pichaivaram and Kodaikanal for a start.
  9. Talk to your profs more. They can be wonderful people (especially outside class, heheh) and you will benefit from the attempt.
  10. Lean on your friends. Talk to your parents. Ask for help when you need it. And be as kind to yourself as you would to your friends in the same situation.

While I reflected on the last five years for this article, I realized that five years isn’t too long – it’s actually the perfect amount of time to figure out what you want and who you are and plan for post-insti. I have left insti without feeling sad because I feel that I have had a full fill of the institute and what it offers, and can look back on my experience with a feeling of contentment, fondness and gratitude. Best of luck to all of you with your remaining time at insti!

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