Home 2021 IIT Bombay in the 80’s – Class and Creativity

IIT Bombay in the 80’s – Class and Creativity

by Devanshu Narang
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When a friend asked me to write about the role of caste in education in India, or whether IIT education stifles creativity, like a true despo I pounced on the opportunity and instead of choosing one over the other, decided to open the windows and peep into a room full of memories of a life lived in a world which may look utopian. Especially when viewed with the lenses that cover our eyes today.

Caste or creativity! Sometimes I think they can be discussed together, at least in the way the former came into existence. After all, there is no rule that creativity only leads to positive values.

It must have been a creative mind who created the concept of caste. Who could “invent” something to differentiate and degrade a fellow human whose organs, blood, and life form were the same as his! Then write and teach cruel religious scriptures, SOPs and rituals to be followed by the herd for generations. Caste was, is, and will remain the easiest ritual in India to create differences at birth and to set the first boundary and later the first challenge for the human mind to cross when he takes his baby step towards his spiritual birth.

But IITs, especially IIT Bombay, where I spent some of the most liberated years of my life,  was not bothered about caste. Or segregation/differentiation due to the same at any level! True, there are different experiences and incidences that we hear about caste-based struggles in other educational establishments, or perhaps even in other IITs or IITs of today. But I am remembering a true account of a life lived in a time when caste was a non-issue in IIT Bombay.

We did have our share of the fringe and notorious elements who would come with fixed mindsets about caste, and tried to use the same to spread hate. But such sideys were shown their place in a few days or months and came around to accept the IIT way of life. Truth be told, with students coming from different parts of India, we were not even aware, nor ever asked about the caste of a fellow IITian, and shared food, rooms, wings and ‘suttas’ with one and all.

The only way we came to know about someone’s caste was through the IIT entrance system, wherein some students of the SC/ST category came early for one preparation year, or when some of the fellow SC/ST students went through a tough time going through the IIT education and took a long time to crack courses. And yes, such students did face ridicule at times from a section. But there again a larger section of IITians and fellow batch mates ignored such trivial talks and in fact studied together with these colleagues, shared notes and lectures with them, took extra pains to even explain difficult points, especially since at times understanding became difficult for some due to language issues. The same happened with a few foreign students too and the environment and the background from which such students came was responsible for their lag and definitely not their caste.

During my four years in IIT, I cannot remember any incident wherein any student was denied education or educational support by the Professors and/or the academic staff due to his/her caste. Nor was anyone given high or low grades due to their caste — their performance was the only means of evaluation. You may have entered IIT through any quota-based affirmative action but once in IIT we were at par and were evaluated based on how well we glided through its educational maze. Yes, there were some issues where we were pretty dark in those times be it related to gender or body form but that is a matter of another discussion.

Caste, however creatively used by the Indians to segregate, became a non-issue the moment a person entered the magical IIT Bombay kingdom through Y point or Main gate, irrespective of whether he or she did or did not take the “highly respected and entertaining” IIT pledge!

Creativity and IIT Bombay had a love-hate relationship.

In the Academic area, creativity did stifle at times as we went through the drill followed by batch after batch of similar syllabus, labs, and even research. One did not have much time for original research, especially as a graduate or a post-graduate student, and the safest way to win best grades, recommendation letters and a ticket to success was to follow the long-trodden path. Plagiarism was a common and accepted way of success. Yes, there were exceptions both among students and Professors who did leave their mark and showcased their creative mindsets. But they were few and came more as an exception than a rule.

It must be added though that even this rigid education system provided opportunities for the brave to create new paths if they dared to look beyond grades or goodwill. Also, there was tremendous focus on knowledge gaining and problem solving, traits which served well in the real world. While running companies worldwide and managing hundreds of people, it was the skill sets that I honed in IIT like problem solving, analytical thinking and the ability to think out of the box that helped me more than the basic engineering skills.

Perhaps it was outside the Academic area where real creativity blossomed in our nascent minds and enabled the butterflies to shed their cocoons. And how!

I got the first glimpse of IIT creativity in my very first week in IIT when the hostel sports secretary, seeing that no senior was ready to participate in the hostel freshers’ marathon, immediately offered a BMS (banana milk shake) to seniors to enable greater participation. When we freshies cribbed, he changed the offer to one BMS to any freshie who completed the marathon and one MMS (mango milk shake) to any senior who completed at least half. Or two MMS to any senior who completed the full marathon!

That was CREATIVITY and CLASS at work simultaneously. If there was a class system in IIT Bombay then it was just that – during the ragging time your class was whether you were a senior or a freshie. Later on how you lived or with whom you interacted most – whether as a pseud, a Dnot (Dhandha not like yours truly the real DN in words and in action), a Ghati (Marathi), a Gulti (Telugu), a PG or a B.Tech or even as a total sidey. And yes, come the freshies night when ragging ended, we all became equal and all class differences evaporated. Or every night in the mess when we sat at the carom table and played each other or played table tennis in the lounge area or just sat outside and blew rings of smoke at each other, the ghatis, pseuds, mallus, punjus were all together and even those differences vanished in thin air. Class was just temporary and could be set apart at the earliest possible opportunity of bonhomie.

Later, as I started to unwind myself from a yesteryear school life of a studious, obedient student into the IIT life, I saw a world where opportunities existed all around. Athletics, football, basketball, volleyball, debates, dramatics, literary clubs, boat club, cycle club, mountain climbing — there was a wide range of opportunities and many enthu followers to guide you into it. Especially if you got into the widely popular clubs like mountain climbing, Marathi Theater, volleyball, and of course the father of them all, cricket.

I can still remember how dramatics, literary activities and event organization became synonymous with my identity. From doing a chance role in a street play in first semester to me becoming a popular Director and actor in the latter years, IIT drama club played a major part in making me find and groom the performer within. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of ex-IITians who have found that their passion existed beyond engineering or workplace, and have been able to enrich the world with their skills as leaders – in all spaces including corporate, social and political landscape, visionaries, thinkers, activists, performers, directors, sports personalities….the list is endless.

Besides, for DNs like us, there were many avenues available to hone our creative skills even if we were not interested or were not able to join any of the coveted clubs. Or wanted to explore life beyond clubs, activities and academics! There was the monthly and sometimes weekly or even daily (especially during end-sem times) inter hostel gaali competition where you could become a cult leader by being as creatively raw as you could. There was the race to occupy any strategic place when Pondy would play during the movie night from where you could provide the most noticeable and entertaining background score to break the existing pin drop silence (or the silent crescendo of the rising of tens of excited p lettered word all around) at the “right” moment. There was the pressure to come up with a novel excuse every other night to be able to go to the canteen secretary’s room at 2 a.m. and try and get the canteen key so that you could get your cig and chips when you needed them most.

Oh, creative we became to the hilt. How to beg a fellow batch-mate in H10 (then the only girls’ hostel) to play a small role in the annual PAF and add to the charm? How to study all night before the end-sem and crack the exam based on a fellow batch mate’s photocopied notes without even touching a single page of the three hundred pages plus regular book? How to create a new excuse and write to our parents to try and get some extra pocket money, or bring out the right amount of Kamal Hassan’s lost and sad Sagar looks in front of a visiting “paise-wala” relative to fetch a few pennies?

IIT Bombay and its environment, which allowed us to breathe, be independent, be free from the lives and diktats that we faced from our parents at homes left behind, gave us a ton of opportunities to explore ourselves and find what we were really good at. And graduate not just as an engineer but as a human being who can face the challenges that life throws and find ways to navigate through all of them. It is another matter that the diktats of the world ahead made most of us follow the norms of the society and even let go of many of our newfound talents and hobbies. Yet we were now aware of who we truly were.

Creativity is the ability to think beyond the regular, the mundane and come up with innovative ideas. The ability to dare to not just dream but act to tread an unknown path! Creativity is not defined as an ability that is just limited to a specific field like academics.

In hindsight, when I look back now, I realize that creativity exists in all. An institution like IIT where there are no barriers of caste, class, color, religion and most other differentiators, where we live on our own and without anyone else trying to control every moment of our life, where resources exist for us to find our own path, does open many doors for us to showcase our creativity. During our IIT days and/or in the life ahead!

It is for us to “choose” — to either crib about creativity being stifled, or to creatively find ways to be innovative.

During my IIT days, I was able to discover the real me, besides getting the “sacred” stamp of IIT education in India. Alas, that degree and education became worthless when I moved to Canada and could not get even a single job interview. Yet the creativity that I groomed in IIT and the ability to realize that I have endless potential and that I can dive inside, reinvent myself and find a new form to face life challenges has stood me in good stead and enabled me to live a satisfying life.

I know times have changed, and it is a different world and a different education system. I realize that India has skipped decades, nay centuries, and has gone more conservative in its value system, and may even find the IIT of yesteryears too utopian.

Yet that is what being an IITian is about – being innovative and intellectually able to find ways to break the mould. Today I stand content and satisfied based largely on how I evolved in IIT. May your journey give you joy, peace and enable you to find means to explore the creative needs of your soul. Amen.

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