1. Surviving Two Cultures
About a week or two after I became a resident of Hostel 4 on the campus, for some reason I was a bit late getting to the mess for dinner. Usually, a whole gang of about 12-15 of us freshies would gather, go to the mess, and sit at the same table together – for the same reason that Herrings form large shoals, the larger the shoal the lesser the probability of any one individual being eaten by a marauding Shark!
But that day, horror of horrors, the only empty seat at a table I could see was smack between two of those senior sharks! I tried to be as invisible as I could and finished eating at a blazing speed, my right hand was a blur – like the vibrating wings of a hovering hummingbird – as it moved from plate to mouth! As I finished, I heard the guy on the left commenting on my “right-hand-method” of eating using only one hand, especially my “3-finger-technique” of breaking the bread (chapati) – half in admiration, half mocking!
That half mocking/half admiring remark was a trivial but significant symbol of a gulf – which to my great surprise, I had sensed after starting my life in H4. My cloistered life until then had been spent in a culturally completely homogeneous setting. Of course, cliques formed even in that homogeneous environment, and you became part of some and not of others but that happened (when it did) only over time after having gone through some shared experiences first and then making choices. On the first day, there was no apriori assignment of labels defining who belonged together, and who did not. What I sensed here seemed different.
The best way to describe it would be by plagiarizing C.P. Snow’s lines from his famous Rede lecture In Cambridge on Two Cultures – and I quote (Replacing Snow’s words with the terminology which seemed prevalent at that time)
“Pseuds” at one pole—at the other “Vernacs”, and as the most representative, the “Ghats”. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other.
By virtue of your school and your name (in that order of importance) e.g whether you were from Rammohan Vidyamandir in Girgaon vs Campion on Cooperage Road just about 10 minutes’ drive away, it seemed you were assigned a certain stereotype and were expected to display a certain set of beliefs and behaviors. For example, it was expected that the former couldn’t have heard of Jim Morrison and the latter needed to bring a chair with a hole in the seat from home to place over the squatting toilets in the hostel!
It’s not that anybody explicitly called each other names, but while being ragged I was often categorized as soon as I named my school and was expected to conform to a stereotype. For a freshie – not just me but all those who had joined along with me, this was very confusing. Here we were, for the first time breaking out of the protective cocoons our parents had built around us, confused about where we belonged in an ecosystem never before seen by most of us and a lifestyle choice seemed to be being forced. None of us cared much for being branded with this brand or that without fully comprehending what it meant.
It was almost an identity crisis – Would I be called a confused idiot if I confessed that I love Talat Mehmood and also Jimmy Hendrix? What would I be branded as, if it was found that I played Kabaddi for my school and not tennis?
Ideally, I would have liked to belong to both groups, but it looked like attempting to do that might in fact result in being neither rather than both!
Of course, there seemed a third choice – a subculture that was then termed “commies” that ran parallel these two. But being part of that meant I had to be angry all the time at everybody and everything but most certainly at something called “Establishment”. Although it wasn’t clear to me what exactly that referred to, it seemed that this “establishment” had been more than generous to all those who were so angry at it – charging them Rs 8 per month for hostel rooms and levying tuition fees of (if I remember correctly) Rs 25 per month at the most exclusive seat of learning in the country!
Soon though a crisis came to the fore over the clandestine shows of blue films in the hostel – with each side accusing the other of misusing hostel funds which lead to a big fight (bigger and more asinine than the Big Fight between Vitalstatistix and Cacius Ceramix in “Asterix and the Big Fight by Goscinny and Uderzo”) in the Hostel mess. That idiocy sickened a lot of those who too didn’t care much about this Two Cultures business. And thus emerged a Third culture of those who didn’t subscribe to either of the original two. Although that did not necessarily address C.P. Snow’s original concern about “a gulf of mutual incomprehension”, “lack of understanding” and “a curious distorted image of each other”. Instead of two, now there were three! But at least for the confused freshies like me there was one more option!
In the first few weeks of becoming a resident of Hostel 4 (and a student of IITB) it became very clear to me (and to pretty much most of my other fellow freshies) that we really weren’t who we thought we were prior to coming to the campus! The sieve of JEE had strained out most but a chosen few of us and that meant that most of us were (or were sufficiently deluded to believe we were) pretty special “somebody” within our respective backyards. Suddenly now there were 300 or more such people around you, each of whom seemed as much of a special “somebody”! There were people doing all sorts of cool things you had never done and seemed to be better at and know more than you about things you had done. So, while on one hand you saw your ego shatter into small pieces, on the other, there was absolute freedom to do anything you wished and avenues easily available to use to do so without a parent or a teacher or a nosy neighbor always looking over your shoulders.
And however corny Spiderman’s uncle may have sounded when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility” – replace “power” with “freedom” and that adage wasn’t quite as banal as it was made out to be. A combination of shattered egos, the stress of an alien education environment where for the first time regurgitating memorized stuff wasn’t cutting it (and of course the hated mess food) with unfettered freedom was quite lethal to tame for many. Responses to this lethal brew from my fellow freshies seemed to vary – Some became hermits. Staying cooped up their rooms, emerging only to go to the loo or their lectures, they poured over their Resnik and Hallidays firmly focused on recapturing their no 1 position in their class. Some found refuse at Chand Shah’s Darga and in the exotic herbs for sale there – a joint a day keeps exams away – seemed to be their motto. Some spent most of their time in the hostel lounge around the carrom or TT table, it is enough they said, if they get their degree in 5 years with an occasional extra summer or two to catch up on any Es or Fs – why get burned in the rat race, just get through these 5 years unscathed. Some found other diversions – mountaineering for example.
But with all that most ultimately found their moorings – and the camaraderie of your hostel mates was probably the biggest stabilizer. After you got screwed in the Ph-101 quiz, coming back to the hostel and engaging in a good natured Gaali fight with the folks in the opposite wing or better still with those maggus in Hostel 3 across the road was perhaps the best antidote you could imagine. If not the grades in the end-sem, at least the winning of the inter-hostel Antakshari provided that sense of accomplishment. Placing a dead snake on the 3rd floor landing and watching the panic it created after your wing mates came back up the stairs from dinner in the mess was a better stress buster than anything you can imagine. And in times of trouble there was always that helping hand who will help you do the glass-tracing of a drawing to be submitted the next day, or claim the cigarettes found in your room to be his if your dad dropped in unannounced on some day.
The perspectives hard coded during the life-before-IIT needed to change and for most including me, they did. Of course, studies were important – the conditioning of the social environment in which I grew up wasn’t going to go away in a day or not even in 5 years. But the blinkers on my eyes placed there by that environment which allowed me to see only that beaten track (and so I guess for many like me) suddenly gave way!
I did learn engineering while in IIT and contrary to flippant statements like “Everything useful that I learned was outside the classroom” or “How my life was wasted in the pages of Kreszig” “Why do Engineers need to take Humanities courses in Ethics” etc., EVERYTHING that I learned (or struggled to learn) has been used in my professional life some time or the other – yes Kreszig and theories of Utilitarianism included. But most importantly, I learned to take the good, the bad and the ugly with equanimity and still remain standing – and that was very definitely, the doing of the life in the hostel!
- Rites of Passage - May 13, 2022
- The Toast Doesn’t Always Have to Fall Buttered Side Down! - April 9, 2021