T5E brings to you a collection of precious moments from the insti lives of some of our ’14 passouts in a week-long miniseries, which you can check out here. In this final piece of the series, Ashwin Pananjady talks about his four years in campus.
One of the benefits of being an IITian is that people listen to you when you talk, irrespective of what you choose to talk about. Answering “If IITM were Hogwarts, which hostel would represent which house?” on Quora can get you a disproportionately large number of followers, as can advice on “Is it safe to take a girl for a first date in CCD in IITM?” Graduating from IIT Madras has the additional perk of the campus newsletter graciously offering to publish unedited versions of your rants, provided you talk about your experiences and offer advice. Mine is this pithy essay.
I entered IITM like every other wide-eyed freshie who has been given a ticket to the Promised Land. I have fleeting memories of attending an institute orientation in which we were told about IITM’s collaborative atmosphere and the abundance of endangered wildlife on campus. Soon after came a hostel orientation enlightening us about RG and the endangerment on campus of an otherwise abundant fairer sex. We later discovered that there are roughly 40 girls for every blackbuck on campus, so not everything IITians say is the objective truth. We just like making a point. This piece is going to follow that paradigm, pretty much.
The first thing that hit me when I came to IIT Madras was the diversity of my peer group. For the first time in my life, I was in the company of people who together spoke 15 different languages, came from backgrounds ranging from across the Indian spectrum, and had views that sometimes contrasted a lot with my own. The only thing that seemed to connect the lot of us was an above-average ability at physics, chemistry and math (and MA101 soon truncated that list to just physics and chemistry). But it is quite astounding how we form friendships in insti without worrying about how much we share in common, and how much of an influence those friendships have on the people we finally become. I was extremely fortunate to live 4 years with a wing of people with such a diverse array of interests and talents, who together have broadened my intellect to an immeasurable degree. I was lucky to count among my friends BTechs, MAs, and a few PhDs, and have stimulating conversations spanning the fields of abstract algebra, quantum physics, and English literature.
I also gradually learnt over the first couple of years that there was a common perception among us BTechs – that to distinguish oneself, one needed to do something strikingly non-academic, because after all, we had all cleared the JEE, and by extension, could all be academically successful if we wanted to. Wanting to do well academically only got some grudging respect, but mostly ridicule. And so it was that a large portion of the freshie population was made to join a plethora of extra-curricular activities. Seniors had created their own rat-races on campus so that they would be most likely to succeed; after all, we’d all come from the greatest rat-race of them all. One never questioned the motivation for doing something – more often than not, people did things not because of a desire to learn and broaden their intellect, but out of a desire to emulate the “studs”, out of a necessity to be remembered. After about a year of this frantic searching, some found a passion, and ended up learning, and others dropped out; it was a rat-race after all. People realized their folly eventually, but that came (not surprisingly) sometime during the final year. Hindsight is always 20-20.
I would be lying if I said that all of the things I did in my first 3 semesters were done out of passion (I was tricked quite a few times into following “stepping-stones to insti god-ness”), as would the 6 or 7 pointer if he claimed that he had no academic regrets. And if there was one change I would like to see in insti, it would be for the mini-institutions that we have created to do more than just make the rich richer – to become less elitist, to foster learning and not competition, to value initiative over reputation, and talent over popularity. I hope that we as students can become more independent and free-thinking than we are now. I hope we will learn to take advice and not orders, and make our own decisions. I hope we can develop a foresight that controls our thoughts and actions. IIT is such an accurate microcosm of our country – discount the skewed sex ratio and you can imagine any of our (incomprehensibly) regionalist elections, communal prejudices, and open objectification happening at a much larger scale in India – and I for one believe that it is our duty as some of the most respected among the educated public to have our own opinions, ideals and goals, also justifiable motivation for everything that we do.
Having said all that, however, I must concede that the mini-institutions of IIT Madras have changed me immensely as a person, and I will be forever grateful for that. Daily practice on an insti basketball team gave me a level of discipline that I hadn’t really been exposed to upto that point. Organizing events for Saarang and funds for Shaastra gave me an opportunity to meet like-minded people from other colleges, and from the corporate world. I was given a chance to be part of campus clubs, and improve my quizzing, word games, writing and speaking skills by learning and competing with some really amazing peers. I learned so many new skills over four years that became such an integral part of my college experience – I was fortunate to pick up theatre and film from some immensely talented people, many of whom owed their proficiency in turn to others before them. There is a lot of talk about IITM’s culture from most people you see on campus, but I feel privileged to have been among those who got a chance to learn from and contribute to it. Being in a Lit-Soc winning hostel meant that I got to work alongside some very passionate people, and I learned to appreciate the concept of a legacy. On the academic side of things, I had the opportunity to interact with some extremely cool professors by whom I was taught so much – not only about electrical engineering, but about life in general. I leave IIT Madras thinner (blame it on the messes) and balder (or so I’ve been told) than I was when I entered four years ago, but with a wealth of unimaginably fun experiences that I am sure very few places in the world can provide.
I’ve also seen insti itself change over four years, like the living, breathing entity that it is. I’ve seen Basera become Zaitoon, and Zaitoon become a pile of rubbish. I have seen Tifany’s turn into Suprabha, and Suprabha disappear. I have seen Schroeter and Lit-Soc streaks, and a girl’s hostel lift its first intra-mural trophy. I have seen e-mails from Deans increase in font size. Mandak has sunk a few more inches during my stay here, and the average age of Brahmaputra’s residents has halved. Other things have remained more or less the same, and it’s unlikely that they will ever change: culsecs will always be FR coords, Robo-Oceana at Shaastra will always be more popular than the Saarang Rock Show, and CLT will always be the best theatre auditorium in Chennai. We don’t really pay much attention to these little things, and yet each endears itself to me as I write about it now. Leaving is never easy, and it’s particularly hard to leave a place that’s given you so much.
I happened to attend a peer review committee meeting of the institute in May, where one of the reviewers quite solemnly asked a group of students (consisting mostly of the elected office bearers) about whether IITM prepared one for a career in engineering, professional success, or just life in general. Most students there answered with an immediate and resounding “it prepares us for life”, in the typical, lofty style in which you would tell the obsequious freshie who’s come to you for fundaes. I wasn’t one of the people who answered then, but I was taken by how earnestly the question was asked and brooded over it for a fair bit after. And here’s my take on it, from my own personal experience and from what I’ve seen happen to people here: IITM can prepare you for a career in engineering, management, math, physics, or the humanities, provided you’re willing to work hard at it; it can prepare you for a life centred around organization and networking, provided you take the initiative; it can even lay a platform for you to excel at music, drama, film, or even sports, provided you can sustain the passion; it will let you develop skills you always wanted to pick up, and simply being here will build facets of your personality that you didn’t even believe existed. There is an infectious enthusiasm on this campus that you can channel into whatever activity you choose to pursue here, and there’s something truly magical about this place that makes it very hard for people not to succeed, provided they can retain their hunger for success. I realize that much of what I just said makes me sound like a bratty, pretentious Albus Dumbledore, but it’s my unbiased perception of the merits of this wonderful institution. Maybe IITM is kind of like Hogwarts after all.
About the Author: Ashwin Martin Pananjady, better known as ‘More’, graduated this year with a B. Tech (Hons.) in Electrical Engineering. Among other things, he was an avid LitSoc-er who guided Saraswathi Hostel to its LitSoc victory in 2012-13 as LitSec, and an active participant in the insti dramatics scene. He is headed to the University of California, Berkeley for an MS/PhD in the Department of EE and CS.
If you graduated this Convocation, and would like to share your experiences on T5E, get in touch with us very soon at [email protected].