Monday 26 September 2016
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Technical Ecstasy

A tale of love, life and friendship at an elite engineering school. Yes, it's possible. It's even funny.
Five Point Someone—What Not To Do At IIT
By Chetan Bhagat
Rupa Pages: 270; Rs 95

It was originally said of Harvard and MIT that in the first, the hard bit was getting in; while in the second, it was getting out. This essentially, if a little crudely, sums up the difference between an elite liberal arts college and an elite tech school.

The problem of getting out is as serious at any of the Indian Institutes of Technology, as it is at any of the handful of comparable engineering colleges elsewhere in the world. This really isn't an issue for the astonishingly smart students who do make it to the right end of the grading curve. Some of these people are truly rocket scientists in every sense of the term. Their successes have been well documented in recent years. This book, however, is not about them.

For everyone else--and almost every one of these people has spent much of his (well, there are a few women) childhood being used to the idea of being the smartest person around already--it can be the white-knuckle ride of their lives.

Some don't make it through at all. Many others discover that not only are they not the smartest people around, there are also people around who can and do make them look utterly silly. The blow to their egos can be crushing, but they are still extremely bright people, and most of them keep a clear look out for ways to tackle the system.

Five Point Someone is about three such young men. Hari, Ryan and Alok meet as freshman mechanical engineering students at IIT Delhi. After an ill-timed watching of Terminator results in a disastrous performance in a quiz, they realise that "difficult" in an IIT context has a weight of meaning that's much larger than anything they might encounter in the outside world. The initial shock of this discovery gives way to a determination to work out a way to get the most out of the system with the least possible work.

Of course this grand plan is doomed to fail, though our three friends do not realise that the price they will eventually pay for this misadventure will be rather more than mere indifferent to poor academic performance.

On the way to this realisation, they will have to encounter important, if painful, lessons on life, love, friendship and self-awareness. Bhagat's novel isn't perfect, and there are several places where it's clear that this is a first novel. Yet Five Point Someone (the title refers to the poor grade point average out of a possible ten that its protagonists achieve) does several things right.

It gets the sex right, but more of that later. It also manages to cover the heavy ground of life's lessons without the horribly earnest moralising and navel-gazing that is the bane of so much Indian writing in English. In fact for much of the narrative, Bhagat sustains a darkly funny tone that anyone from India's top professional colleges will instantly recognise. Before moving on to business school at Ahmedabad and work at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, Bhagat himself studied at IIT Delhi, and the book's argot is largely faithful to his undergraduate days.

Several of its characters resonate nicely with reality. Ryan is the laid-back, underperforming bright student everybody remembers from the sports field or college canteen on campus. Alok is the boy from an underprivileged background who's trying to make the most of a world where his brain is his only chance for a better life.

The professors, from the frightening Cherian to the accessible and inspiring Veera, will have most engineering students remembering their own experiences with men who could take innocuously-named subjects like Circuits and Systems and reveal them to be fiendish Fourier Transform sodden tests of how to make grown men weep.

And ah, yes, the sex. Critics have offered several highly speculative explanations for why Indian novelists write such ridiculously inept sex scenes.   The unkindest possibly being that only a virgin's fevered imaginings could have produced such tortured (and tortuous) tracts.  So who would have thought that one of the very few books where the sex is treated convincingly would be a first time novelist, and a gear head-turned investment banker at that. Yet Hari's sexual encounter with his girlfriend Neha does all the right things. It's entirely plausible, even if the specific circumstances might seem a bit improbable, it's sensual without ever getting bogged down in the sticky mechanics of the act, and it's utterly integral to the plot.

Where Five Point Someone seems slightly let down, though, is in the editing of the beginning and the end of the novel. A more experienced editor would have fought a lot harder to keep out the author's explanations of what he is all about from the beginning and the end of the book. Apart from the very rare instances where it is done well, and this isn't one, alas, it smacks of the heavy-handedness of that cheapest of cinematic cop-outs, the voice-over.

It jars particularly in the context of a book where the author makes hardly any attempt to explain college slang or dumb down the technology that can hardly afford not to appear in a novel set in one of the world's better engineering college.  Bhagat seems to believe that an explanation shouldn't come in the way of a narrative when it's flowing well, which is an entirely good thing.

That's why Five Point Someone may be the first novel to successfully capture the unique ethos, especially the cheerful insanity, of India's elite institutions.

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