Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Guhan Narayanan

Design by Siri Chandana

For our next TGG, we have Guhan Narayanan! Guhan holds a BTech Honours in Mechanical Engineering, and graduated in 2021 (alas, a member of the online convocation generation). His motto in college was to try out as many random things as possible. He now works at the Life Sciences and Technology Centre at ITC. Guhan spends his mornings planning the lives of his future pets and his evenings gaming (he is currently accepting applications for his Valorant team)

IIT Madras is known for a lot of things – a lush campus, affordable gourmet-quality food at Zaitoon, top notch profs, great sports facilities, and the supposedly endangered blackbucks – but not so much for the space it makes for serendipity. Four glorious, memorable years at insti, and I think that’s what it all came down to – IIT Madras’s secret ingredient – serendipity. 

At insti, a chance bump-in to a senior turns into a 2 hour long fundae that can end up changing your career trajectory. You put yourself in the right places, brush shoulders with a talented bunch – each with their own quirks, and before you know it, they’ve inspired you to try your hand at things you’ve never done before – singing on stage, learning word games, and whatnot. A random event on a random evening introduces you to some folks, one conversation leads to another, you end up applying for a PoR, and before you know it, that PoR helped you land that dream internship – all of this because you chose to attend that random event on a random evening. In all my post-convocation, retrospective, graduate wisdom, I think it all came down to this – insti’s serendipitous flavour that gave me a chance to step out of my cocoon, and become someone I always wanted to be. 

Gotta Try ‘Em to Know ‘Em

Having “lost out” on the typical “highschool experience” (courtesy  JEE prep), I was determined not to end up a wallflower in college. I had little experience with anything beyond books, and I was desperate to change that. I didn’t know what I was good at, and at the time, I thought that the only way to find out was to try, keep trying, and try some more. I decided that I wanted to try my hand at just about anything and participate in everything that insti had. Winning or doing well wasn’t the goal, trying out was. I had the freedom to make the most of my time post classes. Insti being insti always had something for me to do every evening, and so began my journey. 

Theatre had always been a distant dream, but that changed after I was cast in a production for the ‘Play-Offs’. Pardon the metaphor, but this experience for me was nothing short of growing from a caterpillar to a butterfly – complete, with wings and all. Here, my naive, hunched, shy, 18-year-old self was coached (everyday) to get over myself. The crew [Shoutout: Ramya, Ganesh, Pillai and Merin] got me talking louder, walking straighter without my hunch, and even christened me with my insti name! 

On the sets of “Man-Eating Cats” with Pillai

I decided to try my hand at sports, something (once again) that was alien to me. I participated in Water Polo. I would bunk my NSO Volleyball classes to spend time in the pool with the Water Polo team. Why did I do it? I don’t know. But am I glad I did? Hell yes. Water Polo pushed me beyond my limits. Practice would last for ~5 hours a day. Was I any good? I wish. I would be last in the sprints, the slowest swimmer. But what I did do right was making sure I participated – making sure I turned up at 5 AM everyday, day after day.  I would show up, and that would be enough. In my first year, I went on a delegation to the parliament, representing IIT Madras. It was going to be a week-long program with an itinerary packed with politicians, thinkers, and stalwarts. At a later time, I ended up getting selected to represent India in an all-expenses-paid trip to Tajikistan as a Cultural Youth Delegate. I wrote a long memoir about the entire trip, which you can find here and here.

A regal welcome at Ismoili Somoni Monument, Dushanbe, Tajikistan

I showed up at a scrabble competition one time. Another time, I mustered the guts to get up on stage to SING (gosh!) at a competition. I tried out Just A Minute on stage where we had to come up with pick-up lines on the spot. I, with great zeal, participated in a MELA quiz, and well… let me not go into how horribly it went. As random as it sounds, I once took part in a stone carving workshop, from which I still have the pendant I made.

Hallelujah, I managed to sing Hallelujah

Dragging Vallabh to a quiz was sometimes worth it

Each time, it did not matter if I ended up doing well, was exactly mediocre, or if I absolutely tanked – it just mattered that I tried my hand, and I had a good time doing it. There was always a little something that I took home from every event that I participated in, and I always got to know myself better with every new experience I had. By putting myself out there, and by showing up (and by making sure to regularly check my smail – seriously, make sure to stay on top of your smail), I was making way for IIT Madras’s serendipity to take its course. Having sailed through 4 whole years at insti, I sincerely believe that putting myself out there to try and have as many experiences as I could allowed me the space to become who I am today. 

The Great, Grand PoR Spectacle

Never has something been so loved and so hated by the insti diaspora as the great, grand PoR spectacle – the one-stop hotspot to find toxic competition, friends for life, backbiting gossip, the peaks of Machiavellian slickness, the unholy slackers, the motivated visionaries and everything in between. For me, PoRs were the perfect slice of life. I think I learnt more about life with my PoRs than I ever did anywhere else. As the years passed, my experiences and the right mentorship moulded me into a better teammate, leader, and person. 

As rewarding as the PoR experience was, I was always of the opinion that the application process, although excruciatingly tedious in real time, ended up teaching me quite a lot. I have applied to a total of 7 positions, meaning I have filled a total of 7 (10, if you count the double applications for some posts) applications over the past 4 years. That’s thrice as many all-nighters as there were applications, and more than 250 pages worth of content (one of my applications was 45 pages long, and I didn’t even make the cut for that one). Phew. Now that I look back, however, despite how arduous and silly each application might seem, I do not regret the hours I put in them. Through the process of writing applications, I ended up getting in touch with so many seniors (some of whom are still my go-tos for life advice) who honed my design and presentation skills and gave me practice cracking interviews. I didn’t think much of it then, but now that I work  my corporate 9-to-5, I see how many of my myriad “application skills” I apply at my job now – weird flex, but okay.

Sponsorship and PR, Saarang 2019

My PoR journey started as a volunteer, and ended as a Shaastra Core. I rose through the ranks from doing menial jobs (like clicking pictures of folks in front of advertisements and calling people on the streets to attend a lecture), and eventually ended up interacting with international delegates personally. Each position had its highs and lows. The same PoR that needed me to click those pictures, gave me the opportunity to learn and make sponsorship calls. And on the other end, the same PoR that gave me the opportunity to meet those great people, also needed me to oversee cold mailing them for months. No single PoR offers a great experience throughout, but it is the lows that make you appreciate the highs even more.

Evolve, Shaastra 2020

Over the years, the soft skills I learnt in a PoR changed. The general succession, from being a team member, to leading a small team of 6, to leading an entire vertical of 23, gave me a holistic experience. I was able to fix, or at least try to fix, the problems that I had experienced in the lower rungs of the team hierarchy. And moreover, as I got closer to signing off my coreship, I began to understand and appreciate the importance of all tasks that I had written off as boring, repetitive, and avoidable in my earlier days. 

The Highs and Lows of the Pandemic Semesters: Win Some, Lose Some? 

As happening as my college life had been, after March 2020, I, like most, was doomed to the four walls of my bedroom. I missed my friends, ice cream nights at Saras, seeing a deer on the way to the mess, and Chennai filter coffee terribly – all this in my final year, which I had hoped would be the best of them all. Time slowed. Work all but stopped. Cases rose, hopes fell. The realization dawned on me slowly, that my final year at insti was going to happen on a screen. 

As per plan, summer was supposed to go by with a power-packed internship at ITC, at an agri-business plant in Chirala, Andhra Pradesh. I was supposed to be living in a guest house by the beach, taking long evening strolls by the seaside. But, all these fancy dreams were doomed to my screen too. Despite everything being virtual, the folks at ITC went above and beyond to make the entire experience a rich one. For my project, I had to implement Industry 4.0 techniques to improve processes in the factory. My guide would send me pictures and videos of the floor, have calls and walk me through the 3D plan of the factory. My virtual internship ended up going very well, and I was given a PPO. This gave me the first sliver of hope that my life in the pandemic did not have to be all that bad. 

I decided to spend my final year exploring – just as I had in my days as an insti freshie. I decided that I would try out whatever was there for me to try out.  I decided that the more random the competition, the more the fun. I wrote essays, attended quizzes about everything – from the environment to Indian history, made academic posters about education equity (still not sure how I pulled through that one), spoke about climate change, and kept going. I participated in Samsung EDGE, ITC Interrobang, Tata Imagination Challenge and OPJEMS with friends that I made during the lockdown. When we were asked to send a group photo to the press after placing first in Samsung EDGE, we didn’t even have one! All these competitions reinforced my belief in my philosophy about trying things out for their own sake, and letting fate take its course. 

 Pandemic friends don’t have group photos

Through the course of the pandemic, I also spent a considerable amount of time working on my BTP, with the R2D2 Lab, and discovered that I actually do enjoy research. I was awarded the Sivasailam Merit Prize for the best Mechanical BTP. During the eighth semester, I applied and got accepted into a deferred MBA program in the US. Recently, I spent a good hour with the CDC talking about what they are, and why I chose to apply to them and more here. Do check it out if that is your thing. 

So in sum, what started out as a truly heartbreaking and dreary final year turned out to be quite the jam. There is no saying how brilliant my final year on campus would have been, and how many memories I would have made. But at home, I managed to get things done and have fun doing it, and even learned some cool board games with my mom. So, no space for regrets, I would say.

Despite not regretting my time spent in the pandemic year, I had really hoped for some flowy-gown-wearing and cap-throwing-into-open-sky kind of closure with respect to my life at college, but such closure was not in my stars, apparently. I did have some hint of it, however, when I was called back to college to receive the Shankar Dayal Sharma Prize for the best outgoing undergraduate student. I was beyond ecstatic to go back to insti to bid it adieu. But as I walked the roads of campus one last time, the sweet nostalgia was just not hitting like I had expected it to – something was just not right. Familiar locales felt unfamiliar, and I didn’t blend in anymore like I had thought I would. Every day I would jog past these lanes, wave to familiar folks who would wave back. But now, it was just me. No matter how hard I looked, there was nobody I recognized. 

How it started, how it’s ending

As I walked by the now-strange streets of IIT Madras, a bittersweet realization dawned on me. For all the magic that I had ascribed to this place, it was the people here who made it what it was. I started off talking about the power of serendipity at IIT Madras, and how, if you give in to it, it takes you and makes you, you. Now that I think about it, this sense of serendipity always came from the people that I was surrounded by. It was the inspiring people around me – the seniors with their fundaes and gyan, my batchmates and the brilliant work they were doing, the activity filled SAC where you can find some music or theatre practice happening – that propelled me to the right places at the right times, and gave me the motivation and courage to take my chances. Having come full circle, I am beyond grateful for insti’s greatest gift – its people. 

Guhan Narayanan

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