“Move That Coin Away”: A Message from an Alumnus


by Dr. Narayanan Sankaran

Hello IITians,

Greetings from an old alumnus.


It’s been 46 years since I first entered the IITM campus. After my admission interview, I secured the first seat for Chemical Engineering that year. It was the dawn of the petrochemical industry in India, and all the 30 seats in my branch were claimed very quickly. Now, many years after graduation, I still keep in touch with my alma mater.

In early November, I was very upset when I heard that yet another student had taken his own life. This got me thinking and recalling many of my own experiences in the campus, both pleasant and unpleasant.

What would make a bright young student, who just a few months ago had proved that he or she was among the best students in India, and who joined IIT with hopes of a great future, suddenly feel so despondent or devastated as to want to take his or her own life?

I would like to share several thoughts with you all, for what they are worth. While most of you do not need this, there may be a few among you who could benefit and feel mentally stronger and better prepared to face stress.

Maybe we all had it easier back then, over four decades ago. We had no TV, no cell phones, no internet with Twitter or Facebook. Life moved at a relatively sedate pace. My school was in Coimbatore, and its motto was “excelsa sequar” or “aim for the highest”. In retrospect, this motto prepared us for the challenges we would face throughout life. At school, we were repeatedly told that there is much in this world that can be achieved only by trying, and that failure was okay. “Try, try, try again till you succeed,” was the emphatic message. There were activities that helped us develop holistically. Getting high marks was not the sole objective of our existence; learning something new every day was.

We had a system of education with eleven years of schooling and one year of a pre-university course. Preparation for the JEE was a much more relaxed effort back then, lasting just one year. After I left school, there was a break of five months before pre-university. I spent those months relaxing and playing in upper Assam at the home of an uncle. There was no mad cramming those days, no trying to get ahead of the pack. Compare that with the years of preparation that many of you put in! I entered IITM after a quick sprint to the finish line, and was ready to carry on after a brief rest. Most of you enter at the end of an extended marathon, and have to start again with relatively tired minds, with little rest.

Consequently, I’m sure there are those among you who feel exhausted and vulnerable. I strongly urge you all to be realistic in your expectations. Take some rest now, get over your exhaustion. In the coming years, you will find many situations in which to regain lost advantages.

My first focus in IITM was to learn to get along with so many other brilliant people. Most of them were decent, and ready to be friends. The rest I could avoid.

Competition was stiff. I soon realised that where I had previously been a relatively big fish in a fish bowl, I was now in a pond with several fish bigger than me. Accepting that reality helped me deal with being pushed aside from my notional top-spot by more industrious students who got better grades. But my school background helped — grades alone were not the objective. I looked around and interacted with others, and I learned so much from my peers! There were opportunities to play and have interactions with so many brilliant people; we had so many discussions. I developed in so many dimensions, and was challenged throughout my stay in IITM.

Employment opportunities those days were few and modest compared with what is available nowadays. Of course, better performers did get better job offers during campus interviews, and they settled down to progress in their careers sooner than I did. I remember that a friend of mine and I went to be interviewed at Orissa Industries for employment at their plant in Bonai Ghat, Orissa. Very soon both sides realised that it was not a match, and we job-seekers kept looking till we found alternatives acceptable to us. My first job was good, with many projects ongoing for completion. But I was interested in getting into the petrochemicals industry, and I found the career I was looking for only after changing my job.

Throughout this time, there was never a moment when any of my peers or I felt desperate enough to even think of taking our own lives. We fell, got up and kept trying.

So what are the reasons for students taking their lives these days? I shall posit some reasons, and counter them.

Perhaps the student suddenly feels that the challenges at IIT are too much to handle and that he or she will let their family down. Unable to face this possibility, the student takes his or her own life.

Hold on! Surely it is worth having a discussion with your parents, who will soon realise that having their son or daughter alive, with a more reasonable and realistic expectation from them, is far better than the alternative without their ward.

Perhaps the student feels inadequate in comparison with peers who are far better prepared and doing much better, and so decides to take his or her own life.

Hold on! You should expect bigger fish in the pond. You have shown that you are an excellent student by getting into IIT in the first place. Just believe in yourself and step forward. Work hard, and while you may not earn more than all your peers, you will do just  fine.

Perhaps the student falls in love and is rejected.

I would remind you that you are a top student with accomplishments. You are capable of doing a lot. Before you fell in love, and were rejected, you were doing fine!  Surely you can work to get over this specific situation. Do believe in yourself.

I am not qualified to advise people further in this emotional situation. I would urge you to seek the help of professionals who are in a better position to do that.

Call Mitr: 04422575555.

Or call SNEHA, who are available 24/7, at:  04424640050.

Perhaps there is a particular situation that the student finds hard to face or overcome, and feeling desperate, decides to take his or her own life.

Hold on! Sometimes one thing that matters a lot to you could assume huge dimensions that may oppress you. The trick is to change your perspective.

Let me recount a story from my own experiences. When I was a boy, there was once a specific situation that occupied all my thoughts. I was overwhelmed by it! People who knew me could see that I was in distress. An uncle took time to discuss the situation with me, and I soon learned that it was not that big a problem.

My uncle reinforced this by giving me a coin and asking me to hold it close to one eye. It covered the entire field of vision of that eye — it seemed to cover the whole world.


 “Now move it away,” he said.

I did, and as I saw the same coin at arm’s-length away from my eye, it assumed its right size; it was quite small, compared with all that I could see around me, in the whole wide world!


 Is it possible that you are making a mountain of a mole-hill; that you are blowing some specific situation out of proportion? It may be overwhelming you for the time being, but make the effort to see it in the right perspective. Sometimes you will need help to do this. Do find people who can discuss this with you responsibly. Do you have a good friend, who will understand your distress and help you? That will be the best way to confront the situation.

But what if you do not have such a friend?  Then seek the help of professionals. IITM has got a team of very competent professionals who can help you. But they cannot read your minds! You will have to contact them. Call MITr at 04422575555. They are in the campus, and can be contacted anytime.

Do you wish to contact others, who are outside the campus, and so do not know you? Call SNEHA, who have professionals who can help you. They are available all year 24/7: in Chennai, they are at: 04424640050.

To conclude:

  • You have shown that you are all among the best students in India. Believe in yourselves, and go on to achieve your dreams.
  • Do not be afraid to try, and to fail. Count every failure as a stepping stone to success. Remember, it is not how often you fail that matters; what matters is getting up after each fall and moving on. And as you overcome such failures and setbacks, which become your experiences, you will become tough and capable of even further and greater successes.
  • Do not for a moment believe that your life is not worth living. Think of your parents and your family — they will be devastated if you take your life!
  • If you are under stress, try to release the pressure before it builds up and becomes too much to handle. Have open discussions, redefine and reduce inflated expectations. Dream big, for sure; but do not sacrifice yourself for anything! Be ready to fail, to fall; and then to get up and move on.
  • When something assumes large proportions and seems to occupy the whole world, move that coin away. See problems and situations in the right perspective.
  • Get professional help when you need it. Call Mitr or Sneha.

Want to discuss your problem with me?  I can put you onto other people who have also seen the IIT system, and thus have the experience to give you advice. To get in touch with me or them, write to [email protected]. I shall treat you with respect, and your request will be kept confidential. After exchanging messages with you, I may pass on your case to other people if that is what you wish,  or to professionals who can help you better than I.

Remember, you are not alone! You are unique; count every failure as a stepping stone to success; believe in yourself; dream big, and become successful!

I wish all of you all the very best in life!

Dr. N. Sankaran

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