Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of IITians do nothing of note in their lives. Indeed, many of them became IITians because their parents told them that’s what they should mug their butts off for, and aim to hit the US of A, so that’s what they did. They attended classes, took notes, passed exams, took the gre, applied to a dozen American universities, and disappeared into that country’s vast technological underbelly, to reappear only in the matrimonial columns of Indian papers with a dollar salary multiplied diligently by the day’s exchange rate. Or they stayed in India, working at unexceptionable jobs, doing reasonably well. In either case, they got beautiful brides (often from rich families) and presumably lived happily ever after, meeting classmates once a month and chatting about their IIT days, and how Hippo has just changed jobs, and Zap is three rungs away from the top in Cisco Systems. Each of them had intelligence well above the average, and most, exceptional academic tenacity.
A decade and a half out of IIT, I wonder how many of us IITians achieved our potential? How many went to seed in remote dusty townships, tending massive pipelines and drinking in the township club? How many wilfully walked away from their natural talents in favour of safe MNC jobs selling diapers and hire-purchase schemes? How many, trained to think rationally and without bias, never managed to figure out the nuances of Indian office politics, and were relegated to obscure corridors in huge buildings? How many, obsessed with the American dream, settled for second-rate US universities, hung in for a green card, and today work at unfulfilling jobs in Idaho?
There’s another angle too to this. How many IITians, determined to stay engineers and in India, ignored the siren songs of the USA and the IIMs, and joined Indian industry, only to find that all the technical designs came from abroad, that you couldn’t change them even if you knew they were flawed, that all the engineering you got to do was maintenance, and knowing all that, they either settled into mediocrity, or went off to the US or the iims?
What was my IIT education all about? It was about IITians: 400 academically exceptional boys (and 12 girls) on a campus, which, in the case of Kharagpur, where I went, was far enough from civilisation to have very interesting effects on our coming of age. Many of us were truly extraordinary. There were boys from village schools who were leagues ahead in knowledge of the urban convent-educated type. There were those who mugged night and day, or simpered at professors from first benches, and there were those who also had a vibrant and busy life outside academics. I’ve found that the latter did better in life, even in fields like pure research. I also had friends who never needed to study, they had been apparently born with engineering wisdom in their genes. There were guys who spent most of the semester in a drug haze, but sobered up a few days before the exams, cracked them, and went back to their pharmaceuticals. Others did not have such control. Like Allen Ginsberg, I too saw some of the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. A few dropped out (I met one of them years later in Shillong, a stridently devout convert to Catholicism, and a lowly government clerk, but he seemed happy), a few killed themselves. But, most of us survived. I suppose we became tougher, more mature, more knowing, and more aware of our dark sides.
We lived and ate together, and shared our joys and heartbreaks and good times and bad times, in competition and camaraderie. We compared our philosophies and, bit by stumbling bit, developed our value systems. Never were stronger bonds forged between young people. Years from now, if I meet an IIT wingmate on the road, I know we will carry on as if nothing had changed, and nothing actually would have. A couple of years ago, there was a small visual trick on an Outlook cover, which was my idea. A close IIT friend, whom I had not been in touch with for years, called up from Singapore: "Some other name is mentioned in the cover credits, but it was your idea, right? I know the way you think." No one knows me better than these mates of mine from IIT.
IIT was also a whole insular world in itself, complex and complete, and it sucked us in. As The Chosen, we lived a full life with no necessity of any contact with the outside world. Totally cut off from politics and "the bigger issues", our delights remained in competing fiercely on the field or the stage with other hostels or other colleges. There were few material pleasures. Lifestyles were spartan, the food abysmal. The vast majority of males were totally deprived of female company. The girls lived a strange life-on the one hand, they were hounded by dozens of would-be suitors; on the other, they faced the petulant hostility of the majority which saw them as undeserving of so much adulation and so many free lunches.
When we graduated, we went out into the world with a rare confidence and strong tribal loyalties. The confidence eroded a bit over the years, and we learnt some humility when we discovered non-IITians as smart as we were, and also people who could outwit us because they were intelligent in a different way-in a sly political way-an acumen we had not developed in our isolated environment which, above all, inculcated a sense of fairness and a respect for ability. We came to terms with a world that compared poorly with our beloved campus, and some of us even went ahead and conquered it. Others didn’t do well, but knew that the ties between them and the masters-of-the-universe classmates would never change. They were ties born of the pride of being an IITian. That pride would never diminish.
It never can.
The author, Deputy Editor of Outlook, is an Electronics Engineer from IIT Kharagpur. He also met his wife at IIT.