For our next TGG, we have Arvind Pujari. Arvind graduated in 2020 with a B.Tech in Metallurgical and Materials Engineering and is now pursuing a PhD in Nanotechnology at the University of Cambridge. He was an active member of CFI and E-Cell (and a one-time editor of T5E!), actively engaged in research, entrepreneurship and whiling time away. He was awarded the Shankar Dayal Sharma Gold Medal as the best outgoing B.Tech student. Here, he talks about the joys and difficulties that life in insti can bring.
I recently watched the film Chhichhore, and while undoubtedly, it is a great film and has a magnificent performance by a certain late actor. However, there were certain things about the movie which struck me. The scenes in which the group of six friends would laugh, gossip and scam their way through college are extremely endearing, and they are representative of what quintessential college life should look like. My life in insti did not look like this.
I had a very small group of friends, slept early most of the time (probably because all my friends slept early too) and generally had none of the experiences that most people are supposed to have.
For a long time, this troubled me. Have I missed out on college, I used to wonder? Will I regret this many years later? I’ve realised that there is no right and wrong about a “good college experience”. It’s okay to be extroverted and spend consecutive night-outs at Himalaya lawns, and it’s also okay to spend your evenings alone and sleep early. College life is what you make of it.
My life in IIT Madras was a peculiar one. On paper it might seem (at the risk of being arrogant) that I had an excellent stay: that’s what my LinkedIn profile will tell you.
However, under the surface it was torrid at times: I struggled with interpersonal communication, friendship and mental health. While I’m sure that many people face dark times in insti, few of us express this publicly, and so, with either great courage or naivety, here’s the full story.
The Best Advice I Got: Don’t Take Advice!
Perhaps the most endearing thing about insti is this abundance of fundaes. Right from the moment you enter insti, you’re inundated in person, in freshie groups, in orientations about what to do.
Ironically, what helped me combat this was another piece of advice, from the Director at our freshman orientation: don’t ask your seniors for advice. Their advice is often motivated by their own opinions.
Warning: this can have several pitfalls. Fundaes are incredibly helpful in certain cases, like internships, jobs and higher studies. Unfortunately, they can be quite stifling too. We end up trying to ape what other successful people have done and this eliminates options and reduces creativity. Some of the greatest successes come when you step off the beaten path, and venture into the unknown. By extension of that, please take everything that I say with a pinch of salt.
Freshie Year: Do What’s Valuable, Getting Along and Arrogance
I don’t have many memories of my first year in IIT Madras. I didn’t study hard enough to get a branch change and I didn’t spend much time making the ‘freshie memories’ which many people seem to make. I do however have excellent memories from two of the courses I took, the first being the Intro to Meta course and the second being the oft-derided, Life Skills. The former introduced me to a subject I grew to love over the years whereas the latter provided me with inspiration for a future enterprise on smart dustbins.
Just because a course is boring and no-one pays attention, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be learnt, especially if you keep an open mind!
About a month into my first semester, I stumbled across a TED Talk (how cliched, ikr) entitled “Don’t follow your passion”. The presenter’s advice was quite simple: your passion keeps changing so it makes little sense to invest all your time in following it. Instead, do what’s valuable for society and you’ll find your true passion.
So that’s exactly what I did. I joined a project on toilet sanitation in Team Sahaay at CFI one month into the first sem (a topic which most people did not find appealing) and thoroughly enjoyed it. In CFI I found the place that I would cherish the most over the next four years and a group of like-minded tech-enthusiasts who would become family. I met some people I look up to even today, Raghav Vaidyanathan, Akash Anandan, Shashwat Jain (an MS student who was a truly wonderful mentor) and many more.
CFI truly stands on the shoulders of giants! The beautiful thing about CFI is the community: people stay on to help, mentor and advise all the way till they graduate, simply because of what the place means to them.
Our humble little toilet and intelligent dustbin proved to be unprecedented successes. There was a considerable amount of effort involved, including playing Rocky music every time we’d run our bin (essentially checking if it was smart enough to segregate its own waste), but it was worth every bit. We took the toilet to the Rashtrapati Bhavan (yes, the security there did stop us), the bin to Singapore for pitching competitions and won enough money to make our own companies. Sadly, due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of motivation amongst the inventors, both enterprises fizzled out, and our dreams of changing the world of sanitation and waste-management were torn to shreds. Even today, I believe one of the ideas would have led to the formation of a successful start-up, and trust me, the guilt is still there.
All of this success, however, left me rather stuck up and arrogant. I would boast a lot, and perhaps look down a bit on other people, something which I truly regret now.
At the risk of breaking the no advice rule: be humble, share your successes but don’t trumpet it around. Self-awareness is key here. There’s a good chance that you’ve only achieved these things due to a very fortunate set of circumstances, stay true to that!
Years 2 and 3: PoRs, Research and Mental Health
Everyone agrees that IIT Madras is special because of the opportunities that it provides. The three main pathways are entrepreneurship, placements and research. Having tried and failed at the first, I decided to pursue research for a change. I spent thoroughly enjoyable summers at IIT Gandhinagar and Purdue, in the US. A lot of people have asked me why I enjoy research.
The answer is simple, I’ve always tried to do what’s valuable (see above) and through research, particularly in the areas of materials science and nanotechnology, I can tackle some of the world’s greatest problems: sanitation, water and energy.
My internships helped, working on water nanofiltration and mercury detection really helped me see the immense potential that laboratory research has to solve real world problems.
Unfortunately, research internships and internships, in general, have devolved into the hunt for the shiniest, coolest most exotic internship, and while that’s great for tourism, it doesn’t matter. If you spend a summer doing great work at a start-up in Bangalore or an IIT/NIT/IISER/Random College, it’s fine as long as you work with good people and engage in good work. I, however, as you may see, am no one to talk, having fallen down that rabbit hole myself.
I also tried out PoRs, heading the above-mentioned Team Sahaay (the social innovation club of IIT Madras, do check them out and ignore my shameless advertising) in my third year.
I was also unexpectedly thrust into the role of the head of the Editorial and Research team at E-Cell in my second year when the previous head was sacked and was charged with churning out a 100-page magazine with no team and no leadership experience. When we pulled it off, I was immensely proud, of both the team and myself!
Now, however, I realise that it was mainly due to the immense team that I had: all of them got placed in great companies this placement season and I couldn’t be prouder!
Between all of this, I began to struggle with loneliness and an inability to fit in. I had been in fairly good terms with my batchmates/wingmates for the first two years, but I found myself drifting away. Perhaps the reasons had always been there: I have never been a particularly extroverted person, and these wounds were further exacerbated when you step off the beaten path. I began experiencing prolonged periods of darkness, anxiety and general gloom. Now, it’s easy for me to see that this was the beginning of a mental health crisis, but back then I did nothing to halt it (except for one half-hearted conversation with the YourDost website).
Don’t do that. Seek help. Go to the insti hospital, the psychiatrist there is excellent. Don’t be disheartened if your friends can’t help you or don’t seem to understand: they’re really not qualified to deal with this.
If you’re someone’s friend, and you see someone struggling, please, talk to them at the very least, you have no idea how much that can mean. And mental illness isn’t restricted to people who have bad grades, it can happen to anyone, and it needs to be treated.
Courses, and Gender Equality
In all this time, courses became duller and duller. I am of the firm opinion that we learn nothing from courses (even though I still loved meta), with the notable exception of HS classes. I took a course, Women in India, which was a real eye-opener. The fact is, that we are brought up in such a male-dominated environment, that we fail to see the biases that we fall into.
Simple things, like stereotyping girls as maggu are symbolic of deep-rooted bigotry, and sadly, most of us at IIT are victim to it, especially when we start our degrees. The reasons behind the dearth of women in STEM, the glass-ceiling and potential solutions are classroom lessons that will stay with me forever and lessons which we should all pick up.
How can we solve the problems of tomorrow when one half of our society is severely underrepresented? So yes, although most courses were boring, some were paradigm-shifting.
The Final Year: Cut Short
I wasn’t particularly sure about what I wanted to do after I graduated. I felt unprepared for the corporate world and the commitment of a PhD. So, I sat for placements in a few core companies, and applied for a lot of MS and a couple of PhD programmes. It was probably here that taking advice from seniors would have probably helped, but well, I told you there were pitfalls! However, I was fortunate to be guided along the way by my BTP guide, Dr Tiju Thomas who is genuinely one of the nicest people to walk the surface of the planet. I was able to talk to him about many of the issues I had been facing confusion about the future- loneliness, my lack of results, democracy and much more. It was then that I realised that advice from adults is far more nuanced and mature.
With no courses to do, I invested myself fully into my BTP and belatedly realised that I enjoyed full-time research and that a PhD was what I wanted to do. Luckily, I got into a great place, in a subject which is at the forefront of tackling tough social problems, and I’m working on the things I love.
Unlike most people, I was not particularly perturbed when our final semester was cut short or our convocation was cancelled. My small circle of friends was not the kind to go on Goa trips and so, there was very little to do in insti, except have the Wednesday special at Galitos and take epic train rides on account of a LDR.
Fate dealt me another twist though, when I received a couple of unexpected convocation prizes. Who doesn’t want to get a photo with the PM, huh? Family is something which I value greatly, and I wish that my parents could have seen me getting it in person, but hey, the virtual convocation wasn’t half bad.
As time flies by, we tend to forget some of the worse memories, and insti turns into a cherished place.
There is no doubt that IIT Madras is one of the great institutes of our country, simply in terms of the sheer number of opportunities it provides. But also remember, it can become a dark, lonely and fiercely competitive place in the worst of times.
Remember to take care of yourself and seek help when you need it, and hopefully, as time passes, you’ll remember insti and its people fondly.
You can find Arvind on his Instagram.
Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from this series here.