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Wasteside Story

Hari Menon contemplates why he turned on, tuned in and dropped out

Wasteside Story
Bobo and I desultorily knocked about on the tennis court. It was too hot to play seriously, though with the comforting chance of a cooling nor’wester later on. We walked off and shared a last smoke. Two hours later, as I saw the Howrah bridge recede from the Coromandel Express, it hit me—I’ve actually walked out of IIM; I’ve just chucked up the Middle-Class Dream. I smiled.

Twelve years after dropping out from IIM, Calcutta, I still grin, but for different reasons.

It wasn’t an easy decision. "Eye-eye-emm" resonates very well in the job market. The power of the brand to impress others is remarkable, even to the most jaded alumni. And —ahem! possession of the title is a wonderful ego trip.

More practically, in India, where it took hard work and luck just to attain the material quality of life acceptable to a garage hand in the developed west, IIM was a smart short-cut to a car, home and holiday snaps from Trafalgar Square.

As a middle-class south Indian, I would naturally be spared no sharp reaction: "Are you on drugs?... He must have flunked.... You selfishly deprived someone of a seat! You want to do WHAT? Rural development.... He’s completely mad."

I was taking a big risk but at the time I felt I was merely juggling a little dangerously with my marbles; I hadn’t lost them.

I had lots of fun on campus; and for a quiz fiend, Calcutta was paradise. But I didn’t go to IIM because I enjoyed hostel life or because I got my kicks from beating the Dalhousie Institute "A" team. Youthful cynicism is precious both for the profundity with which it paints the mundane and for the endless subsequent opportunities it gives you to laugh at yourself.

And perhaps because friends and colleagues had told me how much they had learnt from legends like the late Labdhi Bhandari or V. Raghunathan (marketing and finance professors respectively at IIM, Ahmedabad), I went expecting to be impressed. Instead, I found an ossified and faintly alarming faculty (when I saw the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I finally found a satisfactory visual match for what I felt, but that’s another story). The standout: a marketing department that absolutely had to be the IIM’s best-kept secret. Let’s just say that the IIMcian achievement in peddling shampoo or fizzy drinks is a fine tribute to self-study and on-the-job learning.

Still professors who forced you to think, like AshChats, LinChats and the infamous Ramu (Ashis Chatterjee, operations research; Leena Chatterjee, behavioural science; N. Ramachandran, accounting) were never dull. Ramu’s generosity with a smiling barb and stinginess with grades is good for several drinks at any bar where thirtysomething IIM types are to be found.

A friend on campus woke me up to my essential concern when he said, apropos of the essential chip all but a couple of hundred Indian B-school entrants carry on their shoulders, "The difference between IIM-A and the rest? The others teach you techniques, with varying degrees of skill; at A, you learn ways of thinking." He may have been right. I’ve met B-school grads who will attack a rodent menace with jaw-dropping mousetrap-manufacturing skills, but Ahmedabad alumni dominate the trickle that will produce a Pied Piper.

As long as I was in search of education and not a label, I was wasting my time. The twelve years post-IIM have seen my career careen entertainingly from copy-editing to investment banking and back. And I may even be getting that education.

Do I regret dropping out? It was after all an impetuous decision made long ago. Priorities get reordered as the years shuffle by. A B-school qualification is ultimately about scoring an indefinitely redeemable meal ticket. I stopped asking the "What if?" question the day I found I wasn’t going to starve.

There are two kinds of IIMcians that get noticed later on in life. One is like my friend, Doc.He landed his dream job at his campus placement interview when he was asked to link his ideal employer with food. He said, "Lintas is like a sundae; a bit of this and that. And several nuts on top." I thought then that I knew how to become one of the nuts on top, IIM stamp or not. Don’t ask me now; it’s been a disquieting few years since I discovered that even the nuts don’t know.

Meanwhile, the other kind of IIMcian dreams of picking up the phone at work and barking: "Ciddybank."

By forty, could I have become someone jealous of his friends’ success, fixated on the corner office and obsessed with that flat on Carmichael Road to house his trophy wife and faux-teak furniture? Nah. I couldn’t have lived with myself (death by self-inflicted laughter, presumably). Dropping out never seemed less of a piddy.

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