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Five years is a long time. It is long enough to realize how insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things, and to contemplate life, the universe and everything. But at some point quarter way through our lives, we went through this half-decade-long experiment called college, which in retrospect was a period of great transformation in our lives. Maybe, just maybe, this experience was a way of reaffirming the significance of reaching out to another person parked at the same juncture of time and place, and creating something that mattered. For those of us who graduated in 2015 after long, hard years at IIT Madras, this journey was nothing less than a spectacular exercise in growing up and discovering that maybe we could do this adulthood thing after all.
When we stepped into the lush, teeming campus of IIT Madras at eighteen, there was no indication that this would be one of those experiences. For many, it was the reward for discovering a magic formula of ambition-fuelled hard work and persistence that led to their entry into one of the country’s most esteemed educational institutions. Everyone had some idea of who they wanted to be on campus: that guy who would get a straight 10 CGPA and hit the placement jackpot; that guy who would be so loved for his wit, athletic prowess, and casual use of insti lingo that a reluctance to bathe wouldn’t matter; and for some, that guy who would be the very opposite of what he was in school.
The freshman class of 2010 had a small but strong minority. There were the few of us who were not that guy at all, because in fact, we were the new addition to the mythical subset of girls on campus. And then there were some of us who had not grown up knowing that we wanted to crack the hallowed Joint Entrance Examination to enter the IITs. We heard of a Humanities and Social Sciences program at IIT Madras. A Master of Arts from the Indian Institute of Technology? We were all skeptical of course, but we reasoned with the demons in our heads (and our well-meaning but annoying relatives) to write an entrance exam for which we had not spent four years studying. And so 44 of us found ourselves at the same lush IIT Madras campus one morning in August 2010, not knowing what this place held for us.
Five years seemed like an eternity, and it certainly was in some senses. But it also flashed by in the blink of an eye, and suddenly ten semesters were collapsed into a memory that lent itself to a beautiful montage you could compose in your head – musical score and all. If I were to pick apart this montage, understand it image for image, moment for moment, and even analyse why that particular score, then I would relive every moment of the past five years in hyperlapse.
The images are poignant. It was your first LitSoc win in the freezing, fragrant air conditioning at CLT. It was Freshie Night and you had made the biggest fool of yourself in front of a thousand people. It was your first experience cycling around campus to take a photo with a foreign exchange student, and secure your hostel’s victory in Queen of Sheba. It was your first visit to Bessie beach and you had never had chilli bajji this good before. It was midnight coffee/Maggi/wraps at Tifs/Guru/Basera because you wanted to eat before you actually started your day. It was scamming the air conditioning at CCD for hours and justifying it by buying a five rupee packet of Nibbles. It was your first Saarang or Shaastra. It was your first friend, the first time you fell for someone and they reciprocated, it was your first heartbreak, it was your first time feeling like you could say “insti” without it sounding contrived. And then it became the second, the third, the fourth, and suddenly it was all moving too fast.
To be this long in one place meant that in addition to soaring highs, there were some truly terrible lows. It was tiresome having to justify your presence in insti, explaining why you would want to do a liberal arts programme at IIT, and constantly bearing the “HS” tag. But in insti, we learned to grow a sense of humour, a thick skin, and an appreciation for criticism. This course opened our eyes, sharpened our thoughts, and instilled in us a curiosity to learn, to question everything. It shaped me in ways that I hope and I believe are for the better, in that it taught me to be a sensitive, thinking individual. A moment of personal success was when I explained my thesis to some of my techie friends, and their reaction was one of surprise that what we did was actually so cool.
Another painful way in which some of us stuck out was in being from Sharav. There were times when being from Sharav felt like you were considered merely vacuous and decorative. “Go stand by the tree and be admired like the rest of the campus!” It hurt that we were sometimes considered less intelligent, less funny, less cool. I remember trying hard not to appear boring because I was a girl at JAM finals in my first year, and wishing I could make the same jokes as the guys onstage without trying so hard. But things have changed and the chants of “Sharav hamara!” have fallen drastically, perhaps because the amazingly powerful, strong, funny, intelligent women have slowly come to be respected for these qualities in their own right.
Insti was also an incredibly fertile ground to foster new interests and experiences. Whether or not I had any skill at warbling a tune or writing a story, you could expect to see me a little ahead of time at the venue for a diverse set of LitSoc events. What I lacked in ability I made up for with enthusiasm. Sharav has come a long way since my first year, and I am certainly proud that we have broken the myth that a girls’ hostel is incapable of winning the LitSoc trophy two years in a row. At the same time, I do wish that things had not become so heated over LitSoc, with hostels RG-ing others in slimy, underhand ways. People forgot just how much fun it was to sit in CLT and watch their friends brave the crowds. Maybe we got a little more than we asked for though, with the freshies being separated from mainstream LitSoc. There are so many amazingly talented freshies, but the new administrative rules, I find, have led to lesser participation, smaller audiences, and a disappointing ambivalence towards LitSoc among the younger batches. I wish I could lend them some of the zeal and uninhibited enthusiasm we had because I met so many great people through LitSoc, and I learned that it is a great exercise in humour to embarrass myself every once in a while onstage.
Besides LitSoc, I occupied my time with a strange mix of activities. Over five years, I learned how to swim, I explored new genres of music and discovered that I like to sing, I dabbled in some writing and theatre, and I undertook research internships that took me from towns in rural Tamilnadu, to the streets of Chennai, to faraway lands, and then back again. By the time I was done with insti, I realized that I had an odd mishmash of different interests and positions of responsibility. But my favourite moments are those of silence, of participating, and of simply coasting along amongst these million different activities into which we threw ourselves.
Through a composite of all these experiences, I made friends for life. We battled labels, repression, boredom, academics, and cynicism together, and we were honest enough to call each other out when our battles were misguided or led awry. So somewhere along the way, it dawned upon us that we had grown up together, and had made the transition from adolescence to adulthood without even realizing it.
We may not be as wise as we think ourselves to be, and there is so much more about adulthood that we have yet to painfully discover out in the real world. But we have learned to throw cynicism out the window and to recapture the sense of endless possibility with which we entered insti. We have also learned to pick our battles wisely, to stand up for what we believe in, and to listen. Most importantly, we have learned our own strength because there were times when life in insti pushed us down hard, and we picked ourselves up and marched on. Through all this, I have discovered that there are people in this world that I am proud to call my friends, because by pure happenstance, we crossed paths and created this beautiful thing that makes me think of insti in the warm, sepia glow of nostalgia. We may still be insignificant in the mysterious workings of the universe, but IIT Madras gave us an interstice to construct an experience that in some small way makes everything make sense again.
About the author: Pranathi graduates with the HS batch of 2010. She was Lit Sec at Sharavathi, Writing Club Convener and JAM adept, among other things. Pranathi is heading to the University of Chicago for graduate school.