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Inner Most Allies

Alumni cults have been there as long as there have been alumni. It’s a members only club, and it looks out for its own.

Inner <i>Most</i> Allies
Inner Most Allies

It’s been 25 years since I and my batchmates graduated from IIM Calcutta. In my case, ‘graduation’ may not be an entirely correct word to use; it’s more likely that the institute simply got tired of me: ‘good riddance’ could very well have been the term muttered darkly by my unfortunate professors. However, be that as it may etc, in the last week of December this year, our batch is descending on that beautiful campus with its lakes and ducks and cats for our silver jubilee reunion. Facebook posts are flying in from every inhabited continent, urging people to land up, book early, and ‘no spouses please’, unless he or she is also a batchmate. Nostalgia pervades, a weapon of mass mobilisation. The best days of our lives, remember that incident about Sam and the firecrackers, where the hell is Chaddi, why does this FB group have only 68 members when our batch had nearly 140 people, why can’t we have a Mallika Sherawat night, I met Chaddi in Nairobi in 2002...you get the general sense.

Alumni cults have been there as long as there have been alumni. These are Free­masonries without strange initiation rituals—ragging has been banned by law for two decades now, but that certainly used to be an initiation rite in many institutes—or coded handshakes. And these cults don’t allow lateral entry; there is no room at all for late entrants. Either you are part of the cult, or you can never be. You may be willing to pay a king’s ransom to get in, but it just isn’t possible. I don’t care who you are, mate, and what car you drive—you didn’t go to Doon School, so you are not part of the Dosco club; try, maybe your next generation can make it.

Members share a bond that is certainly much more sacred than ties like that of marriage (and if a cult member considers the marriage bond to be more important, he faces general contempt and pariah sta­tus). An example. Last December, the annual global IIT alumni summit was held in Calcutta. It was a good excuse to meet up with folks one had not seen for years. My friend, owner of a palatial apa­rtment in the city, sent off his wife and kids to his ancestral home for a holiday so that six of us could stay at his place, and turn the apartment into a 24-hour IIT party zone during the summit. And none of us freeloaders even thought of saying thank you to him. In fact, if anyone did that, it would be a breach of the unwritten code. Yes, what he did was great. So?

“We created anchor points across the world of 1975 batch people...critical mass needed for networking purposes.”

Unfortunately, members also need to constantly bolster the self-esteem of the cult by telling one another that they are the coolest and the chosen ones, but there are always people who take on this maintenance function voluntarily. These are people who send out messages and mails early in the morning to all cult mem­bers informing them of the latest news about their alma mater, other alu­mni, stale jokes, photographs of the aurora borealis and other natural wonders, and so on, ending with sign-off lines like ‘We are the best’ and ‘All for one, one for all’. Lazy-bugger cult members (I will not confess publicly that I am one of them) take a look at the mail titles (‘Good mor­ning, brothers’ or ‘7 reasons why armadi­llos are smarter than humans’) and delete the mails muttering: “Grow up, loser.”

Yet, when there is a call to rally around or help, even these lazy-bugger members chip in. To cite a real case: a couple of years ago, an alumni cult I am a member of (membership cuts both ways: you can’t gatecrash, and you can’t decline) came to know that an alumnus, a man who was not part of the cult’s FB group, and had not kept in touch with anyone from his college days, needed a liver transplant which would cost a very substantial sum and which was completely beyond his means (he appeared to have lost his job quite a while back). The word went out. The money was collected within days (and most of the donors didn’t know the patient from Adam), people got in touch with his family, cult members’ cousins who were top physicians were contacted, the operation and post-operation process was monitored on a near-hourly basis and reported—it was just absolutely brilliant. It told me that there were people looking out for me somewhere, even if I had never met them or even heard of them. And of course it was the ‘loser’ busybodies who organised it all. It was humbling.

Click on that The mandatory ‘group photo’ from the IIM Calcutta alumni reunion in 2011

Let us now become a bit more analytical and study this alumni cult thing more closely, delve into its structure. You are Chaddi, in Nairobi airport, and your fli­ght has been del­ayed by three hours. You look around the lounge, and spot an Ind­ian-looking fellow who doesn’t seem to be a third-generation Gujarati-Kenyan trader. So you approach. Delicately, you progress. Level 1: IIT. You bond. Level 2: IIT Delhi! Yeah man, cool. Level 3: Ara­valli Hostel!! Umbilical. You and he can now discuss freely anything from Verizon to Viagra. It’s OK, he won’t judge you—someone from the same hostel. You may even end up wangling yourself a new job.

The flip side of this is that if you find yourself alone with 3-4 members of any particular alumni cult, you will be bored to an inch of your life, because they will only be talking about their old institute and their professors and other such glories that mean nothing to anyone else. Worst of all, they will assume that you are as keenly interested in all this as they are, and that you find their reminiscences about their classmates and teachers as uproariously funny as they do. All you can do is grit your teeth and wish you had brought your iPod along.

I may be wrong (which I am, most of the time, just ask my professors, God bless them), but why is it that till the mid-2000s, a significant number of the senior bureaucrats of the government of India I met had this one common thing on their CV: Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi; St Stephen’s College? Surely there was some long-term conspi­racy at play here? This was a cult within a cult (the UPSC cadre), and they consta­ntly looked out for one ano­ther: plum assignments, stints in nice peaceful cou­n­tries, memberships in housing societies on land acquired at ridiculously concess­i­onal rates and, of course, covering one another’s backs (“Who’s the chap in charge of the file? Neelesh? Oh, Old Blueboy was with me in Stephen’s Eco. I’ll have a word with him at the Gymkhana today evening.”)

My friend got the job but went home with mixed feelings: relief and bemusement at the unfairness of it all.

The Class of 1975, IIT Bombay, arguably has a higher per capita net worth than any other batch from any IIT: it has been estimated to be at least $2 million. There are at least a dozen successful entrepreneurs—many of them serial entrepreneurs, veterans of several IPOs—from this batch in the US alone. As several 75-ers told me when I met them some years ago while researching a book on IITians, the reason is that the batchmates have alw­ays helped one another out. When som­eone got an idea for a startup, he would simply call up a friend, who would chuck up his job and join him: “It’s a lot easier that way: there’s no need to go through the interview process, figuring out whe­ther the chemistry is right or wrong. We had known each other inside out since we were 17, and there was total trust.” When someone else wanted to build a company around a patent he had registered, others would write out cheques or set up meetings with venture capitalists they were close to.

A big-name IITian told me: “When I started off, several of my batchmates wrote out cheques for me. They didn’t know what I was setting off to do, but they knew my abilities, so they just wrote out cheques.” One serial entrepreneur told me that for his first startup, he just called up a batchmate, who had already done a successful startup and ipo, and he set up four meetings with venture capitalists the next day. He was looking for $2 million; by evening, much more than that sum had been pledged, “and all of it through IITians, or through IIT contacts”.

Lake superior IIM Calcutta students do a sing-along at a party on the campus. (Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee)

“We created anchor points across the world, wherever there are 1975 batch people,” a 1975-batcher based in Silicon Valley told me: “The result is the critical mass which you need for networking purposes. In the beginning, it was purely social. Here in the Bay Area, we go for a hike every month. And people start talking business: contacts, advice, help, common customers.... Then when someone is travelling, he doesn’t have to go find contacts. He needs to make just one call.”

A friend of mine from IIM Calcutta quit his first job in a multinational in Mumbai without any offer in hand and landed up home in Calcutta. His wedding date with his long-time girlfriend had already been set, a month away, and suddenly here was our man, unemployed. Both sets of parents were aghast. The next morning, he landed up at the office of the city’s largest headhunter with his CV. The rec­eptionist had him fill up a form and told him that they would get back to him. My friend insisted that he needed a job quickly, so could he meet the branch manager? With some reluctance, because this was not the usual procedure, the receptionist sent his papers inside.

He was called in a minute later. “Ah, 23rd batch, IIM-C,” said the gentleman on the other side of the table, “I’m 15th batch.” The atmosphere now became very congenial. My friend told his senior from B-school that his wedding date had been fixed, so his unemployed status was causing some angst in the family. The gentleman said there was a vacancy in a financial services company and he would set up an interview with the CEO the next morning. “But I know nothing about finance!” cried my friend. “I didn’t take a single finance course in my second year!” “Nine am tomorrow, at their office, at this add­ress,” said the headhunter imperiously, and ordered coffee.

The next morning. “23rd batch? Hmmm,” mused the CEO, a shadowy bulk in his all-curtains-drawn, dimly-lit office. “I am 9th batch. Do they still have ragging in IIM-C?” After 10 minutes of chit-chat about their alma mater, when he had got the job, my friend hesitantly said: “Sir, I have a request. I need a week’s holiday 20 days after I join.” “Why?” came a growl from the dark. “Uh, I’m getting married.” There was a moment’s silence, then: “Would you have a wife left if you took leave for only a week? Take a fortnight off. Collect your appointment letter from Pheroza on your way out.” My friend, part of the Indian workforce once more, went home with mixed feelings: relief and bemusement at the unfairness of it all. He really had no clue about financial services; in fact, he would have been quite unable to answer a single technical question in the area, however basic.

Alumni networks are finally about a shared environment. For a campus is much more than a plot of land with classrooms and playing fields. It is about shared beliefs, value systems, memories of knowledge gained and lessons crammed, and escapades with both happy and sad endings. A college campus especially is that essential transition phase from adolescence to manhood or womanhood, the last few years when life would be simple and uncomplicated. The competition toughens you, and the camaraderie teaches you loyalty and generosity and tolerance. It is an environment that, in both subtle and obvious ways, shapes you. And then you go on to become bankers and engineers and managers and professors and social workers, but the campus chromosome lives on within.

As we grow older, some of us drop off the alumni circuit, stop attending gatherings for they seem to turn into purely networking occasions: connecting only for commercial or career pur­p­o­ses. Yet, we can never get rid of the stamp, and very few of us, however reclusive, however “moved on in life”, would ever be embarrassed to admit that part of our identity comes from that alma mater. You can check out of the cult, but you can never leave. So I shall visit that beautiful campus with its lakes, ducks and cats, in end-December, and see if Chaddi’s been located and been convinced to come.

(The author attended Don Bosco High School, Ramnarain Ruia College, an IIT and an IIM.)

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