4/26/12

Writing Room Bursary Win for In The Medinah

The extract from my novel-in-the-works, In The Medinah, did not make the wonderful people at The Writing Room barf into their oatmeal and they've awarded it their first bursary! You can head over to their lovely blog to read the extract.

4/18/12

What I Learned at IIT

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

I must admit that the first couple of weeks I was terrified. I’d heard so much about the institute as a child that certain ideas about the place were embedded in my mind. Everyone, I was convinced, would be a genius at their work. I’d be lost in a rarefied world. I wouldn’t understand them. I’d flunk out.

That was not what happened.

There were geniuses, yes. But there were also people like me, who could be termed competent.

I went to the design school, so we were not on the same plane as the rest of the campus. Booze and pot circulated at parties. Couples formed and split. A certain mattress on the terrace of the department became notorious for not just the filth on it, but also the convenience it offered for a quick lay during project all-nighters. Antonioni and Bergman were screened in the lecture hall rather than structural mechanics presentations.

There were inevitable complaints – students were not of as good a quality as previous batches. (How do they explain this and this, I wonder?)

These complaints (about my batch and the students after us) - stressing that we were more undisciplined and truant than those who’d gone before - are something every generation grumbles about.

So what, then, to make of these emails that have surfaced in The Hindu?

IIT Madras professors were venting the following in late March:

“Students' feedback at the forum seems to have bothered professors quite a bit, going by what one of the professors M.P. Maiya, chairman, council of wardens, suggests. “For the next open forum, if at all there is one, we must get the questions screened by responsible students first”, he says, in order to ensure no “insulting or embarrassing question” is raised. He says this, referring to ‘I am 21 and what is your (read Warden, CCW, DoS, Director) problem if I have sex with my girl friend or whoever it is in the hostel room?' and questions like that.”

“Shaligram Tiwari, another faculty member, goes further and brings parents into the picture. “I apologise in stating that parents do not have enough education to recognise moral values,” he says. He suggests “generating enough fear towards wrong-doing” among students and “handling them harshly”, clarifying that “Of course, the good and academic students will naturally remain unaffected.”” 

“…parents do not have enough education to recognize moral values.” 

That particular line reminded me of a conversation I had with a classmate during my third semester in Powai. He roomed in a hostel with a high number of undergrads and casually informed me that a girl in our class had gained the reputation of being a prostitute among these freshmen.

How could they say something like that, I asked. Why would they even think that?

They see her around Hiranandani in her shorts, so they just assume it, he replied.

These boys formed this opinion of women in shorts with the freedom to roam where they wanted not because their parents didn’t have enough education to recognize moral values. They formed this opinion because their parents sent them to places like Kota for two years where they are forced to cram for the IIT-JEE. Those two years, spent away from their parents and where they do nothing but solve calculus problems and mug up on thermodynamics, force them to grow in only one dimension. They do not develop critical thinking. They do not know how to interact with society. They do not learn how to interact with the opposite sex. They don’t understand that women should be treated as equals. They lack nuance and sensitivity. Their rigid moral code becomes even more ingrained.

After the fishbowl of places like Kota, they are herded off to cities like Delhi and Bombay – where women wear shorts, express opinions in class and smoke and drink. That this is a culture shock to these boys would be an understatement. The only place that they might have seen girls expressing themselves would be in Bollywood movies, where things like shorts and smoking and drinking are visual shorthand for vamps and prostitutes.

When small town, middle class India meets the big city for the first time, it is inevitable that there will be wide agape stares and rumour mongering. What doesn’t help these boys (and let’s face it, the overwhelming majority of the student body at any IIT is male) are the professors and deans and hostel wardens they meet on campus. Those in authority on campus are overwhelmingly male and middle class, most from orthodox families themselves. They, too, find female students who wear western attire and swim in the campus pool for pleasure and date and have pre-marital sex offensive and unnerving.

In 2005, during my last semester in Powai, a professor leaked a female student’s emails to his whole department. He insinuated that she’d managed to grab her seat at IIT through corrupt means – that she was give the answers to the JEE beforehand, cheated her way through semester exams once she got there and was therefore an unworthy candidate to get her BTech degree. That professor, too, like the students from IIT-JEE cram towns like Kota, couldn’t understand that Indian women are individuals with their own desires and minds. He couldn’t understand that this girl could exercise her free will in a democracy, that she could have sex with her boyfriend and go where she pleased. So he tried to make her an object of ridicule by leaking her private emails. He didn’t quite get the response he was hoping for – the backlash against him was loud and furious and the girl in question got her degree.

Kapil Sibal, Jairam Ramesh and Narayana Murthy can rant on about the quality of the students and the IIT-JEE coaching plague. But they won’t mention the other elephant in the room, the one that also contributes to “diluting” the “IIT brand” – the ossified faculty and administration. The faculty, which instead of encouraging new ideas, wants to stick to old ones. The faculty that would prefer to act as moral policemen when they should be progressive mentors.

I return to the question I posed at the beginning of this post:

Did I feel like a fish out of water at IIT Bombay?

And I have to answer: no. At least not until a fine Sunday morning in April 2004. I was going out of campus with my friend and we met a professor from our department at the main gate where men stood selling palm fruit. Since he was my friend’s professor, he talked to her for some time. Eventually, he turned his attention to me.

“I’ve seen you around the department,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Saudha.”

“That’s an interesting name. Is that short for Saudamini?”

“No, it isn’t. It’s just Saudha.”

“So your parents didn’t want to name you Saudamini?”

“No, they didn’t.”

“It’s a strange name. What does it mean?”

“It means blackness in Arabic.”

“Oh.” There was a pause.

Then he asked, “But why did your parents…” he trailed off. “What’s your last name, then?”

“Kasim.” It struck him then. His wrinkled face crunched up and he blabbed: “Oh I have plenty of relatives in Pakistan.”

I think of the silence that ensued then as one of the worst moments in my life. That this IIT professor could only think of someone with an Indian Muslim heritage in context with Pakistan enraged me. There was that subtext in that defensive claim of his: I do not recognize you as Indian enough to be a compatriot of mine.

This, then, is what the IITs are and continue to be: a place where the faculty is stuck in a time warp into which they wish to draw a generation of students who cannot understand them, or their “traditions.”