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Philosophy in a Teacup

by Bakul Desai
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During my sojourn at IIT from 1977 to 82, I liked the HSS department for one strong reason and one stronger reason. HSS canteen chai was the best. At 25p, it was 5p dearer than the ChemE canteen chai, but the cups were larger and the ringside view from the stairwell afforded a better view than any other department. There were more women here than anywhere else. And they did not wear thick specs and mull over differential equations and SP3 hybridization. For some reason, homo-sapiens of the female kind look better when they are writers, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers and economists than when they are engineers and nuclear physicists.

Coming to the stronger reason, I loved the HSS department because it was the only department that gave me A grades. They did not D-Grade and E-grade me like everyone else in IIT wanted to. Looking back, I often wonder why. I was not the HSS type by a long shot. I did not sport ponytails and French beards. I did not smoke bidis while wearing a soiled kurta and torn, faded jeans. I did not even know Marathi, leave alone Latin and French. I did the philosophy courses in HSS because it was compulsory to select one elective in HSS for every semester in which some of us tried to learn some engineering. Maybe the curriculum setting chaps knew that we would have to practice some social engineering in the real world outside, once we got there. Or maybe they had a stake in the canteen that needed to wean tea-drinkers away from its counterpart in ChemE.

Outside lecture halls and in cycle stands and while sharing a ‘bidi’, these Profs asked us, “I piss and shit, you piss and shit, Sartre pisses and shits. So, why is he special?” SHIT, we didn’t know. Om Piss Piss Piss (that’s gujju for “peace”)!

I think I landed with all philosophy courses like Ancient philosophy, Indian philosophy, Contemporary Philosophy, Moral & Political Philosophy etc., because some of my been-there-done-that seniors had advised me that you can “faat” your way through a philosophy exam. The first lecture witnessed standard questions from inquisitive IITans. What do we mean by philosophy? Is philosophy a science? Is science a philosophy? Define metaphysics- serious questions from serious folks who believed that philosophy can be learnt; that it was not a means to ‘faat’ your way into an A grade. Some learnt fast. Some were slow in learning. But eventually, it was clear. Philosophy was means to an end. “The ends justify the means”-that’s what one philosopher had said while we gawked and gaped at a buxom student to pronounce that “the ends justify the jeans”.

Amol (2)


Some valiant professors fought back at the barrage of questions. “Philosophy is all-encompassing, while science is limited by empirical models that it has imposed upon itself” they thundered from the pinnacle of a 12 inch high platform. Some of us were a valiant lot too, before we gave in to the compulsions of ‘faating’. “Philosophy is the creation of fluids emanating from chemico-physico-bilogico-neuro-cortico-haemmo agglomerates of the human body.” Finally, everyone gave in. “What is philosophy” was a question that had plagued mankind (there’s a philosophy about whether man should be called kind, but let’s defer it for a later day philosophical discussion) for many centuries, and it was not about to be closed in a lecture hall at the HSS department while some hot tea was brewing downstairs and asking to be drunk.

So, lecture after lecture, semester after semester, some eminent personalities were unleashed on us. Names like Shankaracharya, HF Bradley, Emmanuel Kant, Kierkegaard, Heidelberg, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Marx were drummed into our psyche and our vulnerable sensibilities. Amongst this set, there was a Charvaka who would have posted maximum “likes” on his FB page, had it existed then. He gave us a reason for our existence in our humble hostels. Drink and make merry, he said in Sanskrit long ago. English speakers called it hedonism, but we didn’t care.

The experience was headier than Sanskrit or English and explained away our absence in the lecture halls to equally hedonistic Profs. Outside lecture halls and in cycle stands and while sharing a ‘bidi’, these Profs asked us, “I piss and shit, you piss and shit, Sartre pisses and shits. So, why is he special?” SHIT, we didn’t know. Om Piss Piss Piss (that’s gujju for “peace”)!

Karl M was a marketing genius. He threw in some dialectic materialism and historical determinism to confound and psyche some engineers into a stupor. He rattled the world into a movement that had to stop moving some day.

From the nasty lot, there were exactly 3 devils- Rene Descartes, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Marx. Just look at this Descartes guy. He assaulted us with coordinate geometry in the Maths lectures. And while we trekked to HSS, assaulted and mauled, presto! He was there too in a phenomenological avatar with his Latin-ish “Cogito Ergo Sum”. He was so “all-pervading” that even the canteen boy Shankar knew what cogito whatever meant. “I think, therefore I am.” Well, I also think. And I think you are a jerk. So are you a jerk? But how did this Des-what’s-his-name travel from MA to HSS faster than we did? Or was he faking his coordinates and his geometry, not to mention, his phenomenology? Whatever, he tried to become a “basis” for existentialism. Coordinate (0, 0) for the funny graph that would be called existentialism. And the existentialists suffered from an identity crisis about whether they were Buddhist or communists.

Truth be told, this confusion worked well for us ‘faaters’. In the exam, I forgot the cogito phrase but substituted it with “Citius, Altius, Fortius.” That was Latin for “faster, higher, stronger” of the Olympic motto fame. Quote was wrong, but the Descartes name was correct and A-grade-able.

So also was with Ludwig Wittgenstein and his“Tractatus Logico Philosophicus”. His name sounded like a Sten gun. His book title made us duck for cover. And expectedly, he wrote his treatise in bullet points, in clauses and in a cheap paperback that must have made his publisher laugh his way to the bank. Approximately, he said that language and vocabulary are faulty communication tools. Very true, considering his language and vocabulary. But then, with a name like his, you can get away with anything. I was tempted to ‘faat’ that Ludwig W said, “H4 mess food sucks” and I am sure that my A-grade would not have been impaired.

About Karl Marx-less said the better. Would he and his-ism have worked had he called the rich as rich and the poor as poor rather than calling them bourgeois and the proletariat? No sir, definitely not. Chaudhary Charan Singh called the rich as rich and he called the poor as poor and he did not progress beyond his Baghpat constituency in Western UP. Karl M was a marketing genius.

He threw in some dialectic materialism and historical determinism to confound and psyche some engineers into a stupor. rHe attled the world into a movement that had to stop moving some day. Russian airline Aeroflot ferrying passengers from Mumbai to Delhi to Moscow to Leningrad to Nairobi at a cost of INR 2000 and with a free copy of Das Kapital thrown in was guerrilla warfare unleashed by activists that did not visit the HSS department. But quoting Marx and his nonsensical-ism was a ticket to getting high marks, while those brandishing his philosophy on railway stations and in messes were consigned to low marks.


At the end of the day, exam time was a free-for-all. Quote anybody on anything. If a question asked you to define physicalism, you could repeat your Prof’s statement verbatim but get only a B. For instance, if you said what the Prof said i.e., “Physicalism is defined as repudiating the view that there exists anything in the universe that lies, in principle, beyond the scope of scientific explanation”, you would get only a B. But if you could embellish it with, “Physicalism is Polemically defined as…” or “physicalism is paradigmatically defined as…” you were guaranteed an A grade. We didn’t know it then, but it was marketing gimmickry- brand merchandising and value addition.  I did not know…and still do not know…what polemics and paradigm mean. Just know that they are commodities that can get you an A grade. Semantic embellishments, you can call them!


So also was with other quotes. A Charvaka-ed KT once said in my wing during one of his customary staggering binge, “Worshipping idols is an intellectually immature act of depicting a supra-personal absolute.” I quoted him verbatim in the exam, but attributed it to Shankaracharya and his Advait philosophy. Neither Shankaracharya, nor Hasmukh nor I know what a supra-personal absolute is, but it sounded nice and more than that, it was a guarantee to an A Grade and a claim to be an avant-garde. The jury was out. ‘Faating’ was a resounding success.

Misquoting a somnambulist as a “critic of the age of reason” was raison d’etre to get an A grade.  Yes, there were times that we did suffer from some pangs of guilt. Every time I misquoted someone, I felt like a leg-spinner. I threw the ball outside the pitch, but knew it would turn in and get the target. I felt like a conman, like a modern art painter who asked his dhobi to thrash away at a canvas with a ‘lungi’ dipped in coloured dye and turned out as a winner.

After having spent over 30 years in the real world, as compared to less than 5 in the HSS department and its canteen, it is but fair to look back and see if there was a tangible takeaway from the philosophy classes. Yes, we now know how to ‘faat’ at parties and impress our audience by referring to Hinduism as an uninstitutionalized religion and by referring to Herman Hesse as an Aryan-come-lately. What more? Seriously speaking, the philosophy classes did influence us beyond honing our survival instincts. They set the background and gave us a basis of understanding life that sets us apart as “thinkers”. They are an integral part of the value-systems that we have evolved for ourselves. They have made us more inclusive in our thought by exposing us to various viewpoints and paradigms (in case paradigm means what I think it means). To quote Sir Bertrand Russell, “You are a sum total of all your experiences. Your strengths and follies are an outcome of what you imbibed from your education. Even while you pillory your learning process, remember that you have taken back something from it.” Really? Did Lord Bertrand Really say this? Well,let me start confessing and stop ‘faating’. This wonderful quote came from Lady Jaya Joshi who assures me that the HSS canteen still serves some good chai which may remind me about mysticism and teleology.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti



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