Through the Goggles of A Graduate: Vidya Muthukumar

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. The second in the series, Vidya Muthukumar talks about her four years in campus.

On 17th July 2014, I walked up the stairs of Sharavati Hostel to the room I’d been allotted for a night – 511, which was on the nightmarish top floor infested with monkeys and their bodily products. When I opened the door, I saw three beds arranged in exactly the same fashion as they had been when I had opened the door to my first room in Sharav almost four years ago, and seen one of my roommates sitting on the bed. It’s a trite thing to say, but this felt like the apt full circle metaphor, and I reflected back on my four years here.

I’d entered this institution with a surprising lack of fear about the many things that could go wrong – I opened up to my new roommates and wingmates in a matter of days, and I remember knocking on seniors’ doors saying I wanted to be ‘ragged’. I wasn’t exactly what one would describe as a social butterfly prior to coming to insti, but something about this place – the abundance of energy, and intellectuality, and creative talent in many fields apart from academics – excited me to no end. I had had friends before, but over four years, I’ve forged some of the closest friendships imaginable to me, cutting across boundaries of language and background and opinions.

I pretty much dived into the melting pot of insti culture over the next year, taking part in most events in music and writing, and occasionally dabbling in word games, speaking events and theatre. I believed I was no stranger to multitasking, having balanced a grueling preparation for JEE with regular Carnatic music classes and Western piano classes, and having been passionate about all three. However, I do think I appreciated the real inherent difficulties in it after coming to insti. No longer did I get tucked into bed under warm blankets and sleep for eight hours a day. No longer was I pushed out the door and loaded onto a school bus or car every morning to ensure I would not miss class. With a sleep cycle and diet I’d never experienced before, keeping up with academics and extra-curriculars threw up unforeseen challenges.

I think I met these challenges with mixed, but mostly positive, results. Academics at IIT-M sheds the coat of glamour it had worn prior to the JEE; striving for a high CGPA no longer places you on a pedestal of achievements, but earns you the sometimes affectionate, but often derisive title of a ‘maggu’. Certain courses, with their essential content but rather dry packaging, and their unimaginative exams, did little to win me over. However, my academic experience in insti slowly aged, like a bottle of wine, and kept getting better. Over semesters, courses started becoming richer in their content, and deeper than a bunch of problem solving exercises. I have a deep respect for many of the professors in my department, and I cherish the interactions I’ve been fortunate to have with some of them, about electrical engineering or otherwise. I’ve found their perspectives on academics and life unexpectedly refreshing.

VidyaI’d entered IIT-M with my reputation preceding me; this was perhaps because of a ludicrously sensationalist article in one of the newspapers with the title “Aspiring Carnatic musician gives up MIT seat”. Although I considered myself reasonably modest as a person, I’d accumulated a certain amount of hubris from these achievements as anyone probably would. But a few weeks in the company of some mind-blowingly talented people was enough for me to shed that feeling. My friends clandestinely whispered the names of musicians who could play the most difficult pieces in the world, or who’d played with one of A.R. Rahman’s bandmates; word games enthusiasts who ranked in the top ten in India in Scrabble; international Olympiad gold medallists; swimmers who had been asked to participate in the Asian Games. With my induction into one of the institute bands in my first year, my regular participation in hostel bands and other makeshift bands, and solo performances, I had an almost chaotic four years of music. I learnt invaluable lessons from my seniors in music, and grew tremendously in breadth as both a solo and group musician. I also joined the Music Club, which conducted group and individual Carnatic music performances over the year.

These group activities symbolized some wonderful aspects of insti culture for me – the informal interaction, and passing on, of cultural wisdom from insti generation to insti generation, and a general broadening of interests and skillsets. I entered insti actively singing Carnatic music and playing Western classical piano, and left it having additionally played in a funk/blues band, recorded a short film score, and played live music for three plays. I was able to revive my writing skills, contributing to both Lit-Soc Creative Writing Solo and Group as well as taking a Humanities course in writing in my final semester. To a lesser extent, I experienced the joys of playing Scrabble (except when two letter words were involved), Boggle and Crossie, and watching and appreciating the plethora of talent in insti dramatics. I also remember fondly my humble experiences in leadership – being a coordinator and convener at Saarang posed different challenges that I’d experienced little of earlier, and helped me interact with some wonderful people.

There is a flipside to all this, of course. My activities over four years were strikingly demarcated into ‘insti’ and ‘non-insti’, and the ‘insti’ activities were the ones that took on an extra shade of glamour. In addition to all my activities in insti, I tried to keep up Carnatic music classes with a teacher in T. Nagar, and they did not happen with the regularity I had hoped for. In the Chennai heat, there were days when taking three hours off to travel to-and-fro in a crowded bus seemed an almost inhuman struggle, but I believe I could have done better when I look back. While many of my activities were driven by genuine passion, there were some, notably second-year attempts at Shaastra coordships, that were driven by a sentiment I hope to see diminish some day – the need to stand out, the need to establish oneself in insti, and the need to eventually be labeled an ‘insti god’.

As is wont to happen in most institutes which see the level of activity IIT-M does, people tend to get compartmentalized. A year into insti, a label is usually stuck on you, either as a ‘nine-pointer maggu’ who papers the room windows to avoid distractions, or as a lit god who floors one and all with excellent English and Lit-Soc/Saarang credentials, or as the face of Robocon who’s been plastered all over introductory CFI and Shaastra videos. The assumption is that these labels rarely intersect, but I believe otherwise. If anything, I would like these stereotypes to change, and for people to be more broad-minded in their perceptions of what is worthy of emulating and what is not. I believe it’s the responsibility of seniors to let juniors figure out these perceptions by themselves, and cutting down on unsolicited advice goes a long way here. In my final year, I’ve discovered that some of the people I admire most work from the sidelines, quietly and tirelessly, and get little recognition for it. I myself have enjoyed my final year free of responsibilities and away from the limelight, although I am still clued into the happenings of what I’m interested in in insti.

I’d like to end this little ramble of mine with what I believe I’ve taken out of insti. People give varying answers to these questions, ranging from simple ones like ‘My programming skills have improved over the last four years’ to lofty ones like ‘I feel more prepared for life’. I’ve gained much from insti, on the academic, cultural and social front; but I believe what I really, and truly, have gained the most is a sense of perspective. I have gained perspective on what it really means to be passionate about something, work towards it on my own, and either succeed and bask in its glory, or fail and pick the pieces up. I have gained perspective on the essentiality of certain life skills I had tried to avoid in school, but have learned to embrace now. And I have gained perspective on whose opinions are important to me and whose are not.

Vidya parents

During convocation, random, insignificant-seeming memories set me off and nearly drove me to tears, such as knocking on a wingmate’s door for the last time, taking one final bus to Gajendra Circle, and eating one last meal in the mess. At the Alumni Day, I listened to the panel discussion intently and voiced vociferously certain suggestions about improving the living conditions in hostel to our new Dean of Students at lunch. I realized, then, that I am inextricably linked to insti – I still care deeply about its happenings, and I will continue to do so for a while. And that makes IIT Madras indescribably special to me.

Vidya M

About the author: Vidya Muthukumar graduated this year with a B. Tech. (Hons) in EE. One of the aforementioned active musicians and maggu 9-pointers, Vidya waltzed through insti with the additional distinction of being a bulb. She is headed to 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].



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